And he said, “Woe also to you scholars of the law! You impose on people burdens hard to carry, but you yourselves do not lift one finger to touch them. —Luke 11:46
When a diocese covers up the actions of its officials accused of concealing clergy sexual abuse reports, it ipso facto continues the officials’ original coverup. I can confidently make this claim based on the interpretations of three different state attorneys general who investigated the same types of coverup our diocese manifested in its exoneration of two monsignors earlier this month.
Allow me to walk you through what happened in the Diocese of Buffalo.
Remember that admonition to we laity, “If you see something, say something”? This re-gained popularity in 2019 when diocesan officials claimed they saw the light and really, seriously, honest-to-God learned their lesson from the clergy sexual abuse crisis.
These days the diocese invites us to report employee “fraud/ethical misconduct” through its website using a third-party report-processing agent —which I did on June 9. [UPDATE– those quoted words were removed from that diocesan website under the EthicsPoint paragraph following publication of this post. ] My report centered on two diocesan officials who are alleged to have helped cover up a 2004 clergy sexual abuse report made to them by a seminarian.
My allegations against Rev. Monsignor David LiPuma (who was vice chancellor at the time) and Rev. Monsignor Richard Siepka (who was the seminary rector at the time) are based on what the victim disclosed to me in 2006 of sexual molestation he said he suffered at the hands of Rev. Art Smith. [Smith denies the allegation] He also disclosed to me the various ways diocesan officials continued to fail in their duty to handle the report properly. I offered corroborating documents that were obtained from public sources or cited in the 2020 New York State Attorney General lawsuit against the Diocese of Buffalo and its bishops. Combined with the victim’s public statements, [here and here] which I corroborated, I more than provided a substantial likelihood that both monsignors had participated in a coordinated diocesan coverup that protected an alleged sexual predator priest.
Beyond their alleged participation in the coverup, I also reported what the seminarian described as the two monsignors’ unethical treatment of him after making the report—the effects of which I witnessed first hand since 2006. As stated in my report:
“It is evident in documents cited in the NYS AG lawsuit (page 174) that [Monsignior] Cunningham [apostolic administrator] participated in the coverup with [Bishop] Grosz and [Monsignor] LiPuma by deliberately misleading the victim about the true nature of the assault, attempting to brush it off as not even sexual harassment. This deception clearly encouraged the seminarian to ignore his own sexual abuse—an unconscionable, immoral counsel to a victim of sexual assault by a trusted priest. All the while, the seminarian’s rector, Monsignor Siepka, maintained his silence (complicity) and lack of pastoral care to the victim under his care at the seminary.”
Such alleged misconduct by diocesan officials, I presume, falls under employee “fraud/ethical misconduct.” That such conduct would violate diocesan clergy code of conduct goes without saying given the fact that priests must be above reproach and demonstrate unassailable moral and professional conduct. After all, they reflect the person of Christ in all that they say and do, including how they conduct the affairs of the Church, according to diocesan code.
The expectation in the marketplace is that such reports on officials’ professional conduct will receive a thorough, objective investigation following basic investigative procedures from an impartial entity not affiliated with the diocese. That clearly didn’t happen.
Had such a report occurred in a normal work setting for police officers, school officials or executive managers of the Penn State football program, we likely would have seen such an investigation. But because the work setting is a Roman Catholic diocese, the organization seats its own jurors, conducts its own secret internal investigation and excuses the priests’ behavior with rationale right up there with “the dog ate my homework.” After sitting on my report a mere one-and-a-half business days, the diocese offered a seven-sentence exoneration that will blow your mind:
“6/13/2022 12:04 PM
Thank you for the care and concern you have expressed on behalf of Rev Ryszard Biernat. The 2004 incident involving Fr. Ryszard was not handled as quickly or effectively as one might wish, and there seems to have been some confusion regarding who should take responsibility and how the situation should be resolved. The Diocese has since investigated the matter and has corrected and clarified policies and
procedures. Investigation into the matter substantiated the inappropriate behavior of Fr. Smith, but did not substantiate the claims that you have made against other priests, especially with regard to ill-intent, or deliberate callousness. This is a very complex and confidential matter. Since you are someone not immediately involved in the situation about which you write, it would be inappropriate for the Diocese to share any additional information with you out of respect for the confidentiality of all involved. We hope you understand. If Fr. Ryszard would like to speak on his own behalf, I am sure the Bishop would meet with him.”
It’s an embarrassing manifestation that the Diocese of Buffalo is still in the business of concealing its dirty laundry concerning how its officials handled clergy sexual abuse reports. In addition, it is extremely suspicious, starting with its very anonymity. Rather than attempt to unwrap the obvious, I’m going to let three state attorneys general from New York, Illinois and Pennsylvania explain how such a document reveals that the Diocese of Buffalo is still likely actively involved in covering up the actions of its officials accused of covering up clergy sexual abuse reports, thereby continuing their original coverup. Such diocesan tactics are plain for all to read in that seven-sentence communique to me.
Coverup tactic: Shoddy Investigations
Following her lengthy investigation into the sexual abuse of children and vulnerable adults in the Diocese of Buffalo, New York State Attorney General, Letitia James, revealed in 2020 that the diocese’s followup of allegations with inadequate investigations, “if at all,” were part of its systemic mode of operations. Even if diocesan leadership found complaints to be credible, “they sheltered the accused priests from public disclosure…” she wrote in her scathing rebuke of the diocese’s handling of clergy sexual abuse reports.
So we are not surprised that the June 13 report exonerating the two monsignors reveals a similarly suspicious attempt at an investigation starting with its very anonymity—from the unnamed investigators, to the lack of information about the investigative process, to the unsigned document itself. This mysterious diocesan entity did not even bother to interview the key witness, a clergy sexual abuse survivor, to see if my allegations corroborating his claims about the two monsignors were accurate. That omission alone should nullify their findings. It appears that the diocese’s “investigation” consisted of two monsignors denying that they participated in the coverup of a report of a priest’s sexual assault of the seminarian. With no transparency from the diocese, how can we tell?
The whole point of reporting is to encourage an investigation or to help with an investigation in progress. In all fairness, the two monsignors accused of professional misconduct deserve to have their names cleared if the allegations are found to be false. That can only happen through an unbiased and objective investigation by competent unaffiliated professionals who follow minimal standards of investigative procedures. It appears the monsignors didn’t get that.
The Diocese of Buffalo is not alone in conducting such sham investigations of clergy misconduct. Former attorney general for the state of Illinois, Lisa Madigan, said her investigations into widespread clergy sexual abuse in dioceses throughout her state revealed, sloppy or non-existent investigations into abuse reports as well. “Any excuse that the Church had or concocted not to investigate, they took…” She said this at a 2019 symposium with Pennsylvania’s former state attorney general discussing what they uncovered in their investigations of Roman Catholic dioceses’ response to clergy sexual abuse in their respective states.
The Grand Jury report out of Pennsylvania in 2018 also revealed a shocking lack professionalism in diocesan investigative processes with clergy sexual abuse reports. Following that state attorney general’s two-year investigation of six Roman Catholic dioceses, the grand jury’s report revealed that sham investigations were part of the “playbook for concealing the truth.” In their summary, jurors quipped that dioceses routinely operated as if they were ordered not to “conduct genuine investigations with properly trained personnel. Instead, assign fellow clergy members to ask inadequate questions and then make credibility determinations about the colleagues with whom they live and work.” 1
Coverup tactic: Self-policing
Madigan observed: “There was just a disinterest or an unwillingness to even find out the extent to which these crimes were taking place which is one of the reasons why I’ve long said…the Catholic Church just cannot police itself.”
Josh Shapiro, former attorney general for the state of Pennsylvania, echoed that sentiment, stating: “They [the Church] cannot be successful at rooting out the predator priests, at ending the culture of coverup and corruption unless they have outside forces, secular leadership, law enforcement involved in whatever process they come up with.” Madigan pointed to the thousands of cases she uncovered, and at every turn, she said dioceses failed to react properly. “This included not admitting to what happened.”
In Buffalo we have an abundance of evidence pointing to a cast of diocesan officials, including the two monsignors, covering up the report of a priest’s alleged sexual assault of a seminarian in 2004. 2 But this latest diocesan statement that deals with the abuse report still refuses to acknowledge any malfeasance by any diocesan official. Instead, it offers a blanket excuse for anyone involved simply because it was unclear who was in charge. Are they serious? This is manifestly intellectually dishonest on its face.
“If they can’t be honest about what really happened, how can they be serious about changing this system, about renewal, about helping survivors?” Shapiro asked concerning the way he found dioceses routinely making light of their dereliction of duty to properly handle clergy sexual abuse reports as they came in.
Coverup tactic: Euphemisms
This brings us to the use of language deliberately chosen to diminish the gravity of the subject—another coverup tactic commonly used by dioceses to provide cover for their clergy accused of misconduct, according to all three attorneys general. The New York lawsuit offered dozens of heartbreaking illustrations of the light-hearted way Diocese of Buffalo officials characterized sexual acts by clergy upon children or vulnerable adults–all in an obvious effort to minimize the gravity of the crimes so officials could deflect any notion of a need for investigation.
Shapiro said he was horrified to read how dioceses would routinely describe gruesome sexual acts upon children with words your grandmother would use to describe a visitor leaving cookie crumbs on her floor. For example, language using the word “inappropriate” is inappropriate, he said. “Such language,” Shapiro added, “is in itself part of the cover-up.”
Consider how, in its communique to me, the Diocese of Buffalo described the alleged sexual assault of the seminarian as “inappropriate behavior of Fr. Smith.” This one phrase alone is unconscionably hurtful to the victim/survivor and an insult to our intelligence and sensibilities as Christians. The anonymous author of that sentence cannot simply airbrush the alleged veritable spiritual incest of a priest upon an unsuspecting seminarian who trusted him and wipe all officials’ hands clean of any responsibility whatsoever as they (according to the lawsuit):
- deliberately concealed this crime from civil authorities within the window of statue of limitations,
- deliberately concealed this crime from laity who had a right to know if their pastor was a credibly-accused sexual predator.
As the victim stated to me at the time—the effects of which I personally witnessed–I reported that the two monsignors
- deliberately withheld spiritual aid and comfort to the victim
- engaged in egregious institutional betrayal of the victim by participating in the bullet-point activities above.
At least the monsignors didn’t have “ill-intent or deliberate callousness” as the report is careful to document on the monsignors’ behalf.
This, my fellow laity, is the level of seriousness with which the Diocese of Buffalo plans to lead us in the “Road to Renewal.” To add insult, whoever wrote this response plastered a passive voice in another artful linguistic coverup: “the incident involving Fr. Ryszard was not handled as quickly or as effectively as one might wish…”
Here we call for the anonymous diocesan author who wrote this report to stop with the peevish prose and man up to what actually happened: The two diocesan officials along with their superiors did not handle the seminarian’s sexual assault report according to ethical, moral, gospel or professional standards in place in 2004.
Here we rightfully ask: Who authorized this anonymous report?
Coverup tactic: Clericalism
Pope Francis points to clericalism as root of the cultural rot that allowed the clergy sexual abuse crisis to flourish—diocese after diocese. It is a pernicious form of elitism and entitlement enjoyed by certain clergy who operate above the law and applicable codes of conduct. It codifies the sense of IMPUNITY under which diocesan officials operate, Madigan observed. These clerics are, by design, untouchable.
This embarrassing document released on June 13 is proof that the culture of covering up malfeasance and protecting certain priests or bishops is alive and well, contrary to what officials, including Bishop Michael Fisher, pledge to us about pursuing transparency and accountability.
That recent document is a stunning example of the diocesan culture which for decades has groomed well-protected officials into the next generation of leadership. Nothing. Absolutely nothing changes in their approach to handling unpleasant or problematic reports indicting their officials or priests in the arena of clergy sexual abuse. Shapiro expressed his incredulity that “There are people in positions of leadership today [throughout dioceses in Pennsylvania] who are documented in our report as having been involved in the coverup.” That is precisely the situation I attempted to throw light upon with my two reports.
Both monsignors are currently active pastors. Monsignor LiPuma serves on the bishop’s College of Consulters.
Bishop Fisher is set to choose 36 pastors to shepherd the remaining parishes left after diocesan officials destroyed what we laity have built up the past 175 years. You can bet your sweet oak church pew that those two internally “investigated” monsignors will likely be on that list of pastors.
If, through an honest and impartial investigation, they are found to have failed in discharging their duties in good faith with the pastoral care clergy in their positions should use, they should not be included among the 36 pastors chosen to shepherd us. Clearly, we are likely never going to see such an investigation.
Sheltering diocesan officials from any form of scrutiny about their professional conduct while working on behalf of the People of God is all a part of diocesan culture, if we read the New York lawsuit correctly. Madigan explained the sickening process she observed in her state of how diocesan leadership is groomed from one generation to the next.
“The people that might have held lower positions” in chancery offices “10, 20, 30 years ago— they’re the people who’ve had to handle these so-called ‘problems’ when they come in, and they’re also the same people who are being elevated [given job promotions]. The Catholic Church is like any institution. It’s very insular. Everybody knows what’s going on. The idea that nobody knew … what the clergy were doing …that’s just not accurate,” she said referencing a clear modus operandi under which diocesan officials worked with clergy sexual abuse cases. “It’s documented and it’s known. The question is, are they [diocesan officials today who were involved in past coverups of clergy sexual abuse reports] going to be held accountable? Are they going to come clean and tell parishioners, tell the public, tell law enforcement what happened?” she asked.
Coverup tactic: Dismissing the value of corroborating witnesses
The final sentence of the document clearly suggests the victim should speak for himself to the bishop, with the clear implication that I did not need to speak for him. This is patently dishonest and unjust on its face.3 What attorney general Madigan observed is true for the Diocese of Buffalo. Every diocesan executive past and present since 2004 is aware that Rev. Biernat has spoken to all bishops about this matter. This abuse victim/survivor had to go through the additional indignity in 2004 of writing up his own report of his sexual assault and literally mailing it to the diocesan headquarters since diocesan officials refused to write up a report. Corroborating witness testimony to the sexual assault and the observed effects of the subsequent diocesan betrayal upon the victim are extremely valuable, particularly in sexual abuse cases where there are usually no first-hand witnesses. Diocesan officials are aware of this as they are aware that my corroboration of the victim’s claims so near the time of the alleged incident are valuable to any investigation concerning this case. If investigators wanted to verify my testimony, the onus was on investigators to contact the victim who is always available for those discussions. The onus is never on the victim to contact the investigators or the bishop.
Coverup tactic: Blaming lack of policies and procedures in place
We laity do not need policies in place in our workplace to follow our moral consciences, the gospel principles of Jesus Christ and the Ten Commandments. We have a right to expect such principles will similarly inform our diocesan officials as they determine how to handle clergy sexual abuse reports. Instead, the diocese excuses its officials who apparently needed clarified “policies and procedures” in place, according to the June 13th response. Priests need paperwork in place to offer compassion, clear guidance and spiritual aid to victims of clergy sexual assault?
The U.S. bishops’ 2002 “Dallas Charter” offering policies to address clergy sexual abuse was already in place when the seminarian was sexually molested by a priest—a crime the diocese finally admits did occur in this recent report—a full 18 years after the assault was initially reported. That Charter calls for putting the sexual abuse victim FIRST in addressing such reports. Instead this recent report from the diocese reveals in its first sentence a bishop and his diocese patting a laywoman on the head for her care and concern for the survivor, as if the she is somehow separately responsible for such compassion in seeking justice for him.
Note to Bishop Fisher: That’s your responsibility as the primary authority charged to seek justice for the abuse survivor, not sheltering your officials from accountability in concealing his case. Read the Charter.
At his first media conference upon his appointment as Bishop of the Diocese of Buffalo, Bishop Fisher said, “I am very much for accountability and transparency.” We laity are too, bishop.
In his pastoral letter to diocesan faithful, Bishop Fisher said, “The failings of Church leaders to protect those harmed and prevent others from being harmed has caused a fundamental breach of trust among the faithful and a loss of confidence in those charged with shepherding God’s people.” While we may applaud Bishop Fisher for acknowledging the harm his officials and former officials have caused, we also note that never has he once called for these officials to apologize to the survivors they hurt, do penance, pay restitution or any other actions priests call we laity to do. We also note that nowhere in this letter does Bishop Fisher mention the word: accountability.
As attorney general Madigan said of diocesan officials who bloviate about their commitments to renewal and concern for survivors, “They’re good at words, but they have to actually take the actions that they have failed to [do] in terms of supporting survivors and being transparent.”
In the state lawsuit against the Diocese of Buffalo [page 178], attorney general James took pains to quote an exasperated Catholic school principal who had made numerous attempts to get Bishop Richard Malone to remove a priest assigned to her school who allegedly had been sexually grooming an eighth grade boy among other concerning behaviors. This was the same priest alleged to have sexually molested seminarian Ryszard Biernat nine years earlier. Monsignor LiPuma was still serving as vice chancellor. In her letter to the bishop, the principal wrote: “If a teacher would have been grooming children and had inappropriate relations with a minor, they would have been fired and lost their license to teach. Why is it this man is not only still the pastor . . . , but also still wearing a collar?”
In a recent post, I highlighted an important question an author posed on this very conundrum the principal expressed: Are lay people still so blindly accepting of anything told them by a bishop, even when it is manifestly extremely suspicious if not patently false? At the very least, this recent report exonerating the two diocesan officials is manifestly extremely suspicious.
Be like the school official. Call the Diocese of Buffalo’s bluff on this alleged “investigation.”
This coverup of the way diocesan officials covered up clergy sexual abuse reports needs to end. Laity’s trust in this organization has been obliterated. There is no Road to Renewal without first establishing trust. It begins with putting victim/survivors first and holding officials accountable.
Sacred Heart of Jesus, have mercy on us.