Laity’s shameful collective silence towards whistleblowers
reflects squandered promises of Vatican II
“…the Lord wishes to spread His kingdom also by means of the laity, namely, a kingdom of truth and life, a kingdom of holiness and grace, a kingdom of justice, love and peace. In this kingdom creation itself will be delivered from its slavery to corruption into the freedom of the glory of the sons of God.” –Document of the Second Vatican Council, Lumen Gentium (Chapter IV:36)
Despite the Catholic Church’s affirmation of lay participation and influence following the Second Vatican Council, this newspaper photo [below] pretty much sums up what we laity have achieved in the intervening 60 years: the institutional isolation of a priest who followed his conscience to whistleblow on a bishop he demonstrated had enabled and protected clergy sexual predators. Few publicly complained about this priest’s suspension from ministry. Well done, laity.
This front-page cover photo from the February 27, 2023 edition of The Buffalo News [Five years after blowing whistle…] depicting Rev. Ryszard Biernat, former diocesan vice chancellor, in blue coveralls carrying a ladder in his current job as building maintenance manager is a shameful reflection of not just our diocesan executives, but the Roman Catholic laity in the Diocese of Buffalo as well—all 600,000 of us. You think that criticism is unfair?
Following the publication of this photo [by Derek Gee] with accompanying reports updating the lives of survivors who allege they were raped as children by diocesan priests and the brave whistleblowers who lost their vocations because they publicly revealed official coverup of the alleged crimes, we laity remain in our collective silence concerning this injustice. While we are obligated to follow a bishop’s teachings in matters of faith and morals, we are supposed to share the responsibility in advancing the mission of the Church. That includes management. Instead, we choose passive slavery to diocesan executives who sadistically isolate such interior threats to their secret system of operations that ruined people’s lives and destroyed souls. We deserve our empty churches, our sold churches, our closed schools, our decimated services to the poor, our lost seminarians, and we deserve the squandering of the patrimony we laity have built up for 175 years in this diocese alone. Let us take a deep look at ourselves.
Back in October, more news surfaced on the international front that further vindicated the heroic efforts of Buffalo whistleblowers. Within a week of the publication of The Buffalo News‘ article, a multi-part documentary series in Poland finished up its television run revealing in one of its episodes shocking new details about the way officials in the Diocese of Buffalo handled physical reports of clergy sexual abuse.
The series, “Bielmo,” which aired on TVN24, offered evidence that the Catholic Church in Poland was able to conceal pedophile priests and victim reports during the era the future Pope John Paul II (Archbishop Karol Wojtyla) served in his native Poland from 1964 to 1978. The documentary series explored evidence that coverups of such crimes were not unique to the church in Poland but standard operating procedure throughout the Catholic Church.
Enter the episode that aired on October 10, 2022 devoted entirely to the Diocese of Buffalo which–because of key whistleblowers within chancery offices–provided probably one of the most detailed accounts in the world of just how a Catholic diocese is able to silence victims of clergy sexual abuse and conceal reports of credibly-accused pedophile priests, putting the public at risk.
The documentary producer, Marcin Gutowski, traveled to Buffalo in 2021 to interview not only Father Biernat but Siobhan O’Connor and other whistleblowers and clergy sexual abuse survivors for the episode, “Abyss of lies.” Recall that O’Connor, Bishop Richard Malone’s executive assistant, appeared on 60 Minutes in October, 2018 to explain why she passed on secret diocesan files to a local reporter from WKBW-tv exposing corruption and abuse of power in the way officials handled alleged clergy sexual abusers and their victims.
A year later, Father Biernat released secret recordings he made of Bishop Malone appearing to freely acknowledge the veracity of reports concerning a priest credibly accused of sexual harassment; yet, the bishop refused to pull him from ministry. That same week, Father Biernat also publicly revealed diocesan officials’ barbarous coverup of his own sexual molestation as a seminarian in 2003 at the hands of a diocesan priest who officials including Bishop Malone and Auxiliary Bishop Edward Grosz protected for years. Such protection included threats by Bishop Grosz against reporting the incident to civil authorities, Father Biernat alleges.
And so in this new documentary film, we again witness Father Biernat bearing his soul recounting his heartbreaking tale from the days he entered the seminary. This time we hear him speaking in the ease of his native Polish language. His personal trauma clearly informed his conscience to break the hellish silence which is the gatekeeper of the management secrets that continue to fuel the crisis.
He has often stated it wasn’t the sexual molestation he suffered personally at the hands of his priest-mentor that “raped my soul,” as he put it. In his capacity as diocesan vice chancellor, it was reading about the long-forgotten boys and girls whose reports of molestation and rape by parish priests were dismissed by diocesan officials, leaving these children and parents to fend for themselves. Father Biernat said he discovered their case files shuffled in an elaborate filing system. Within this secret world revealed in typed and hand-written reports with notes scribbled in the margins, diocesan officials smuggled alleged perpetrator priests to other parishes or Catholic institutions including schools and nursing homes.
Some credibly-accused pedophiles were simply mothballed for the rest of their lives financially supported (but not supervised) by the diocese while they dangerously lived among an unsuspecting public until their death. Some were sent off for treatment and returned to ministry to rape more children. He said he learned about the details of this elaborate coverup, case by case, after Bishop Malone called for a thorough review of all diocesan files pertaining to clergy sexual abuse in 2016. Looming on the horizon was a New York State legislative effort to turn the clock back on statute of limitations for childhood sexual abuse crimes.
The psychological trauma of Father Biernat’s experience reviewing these graphic files was palpable to me when I happened to meet up with him that July following a Mass for World Youth Day pilgrims at Our Lady of Victory National Shrine and Basilica. I simply asked him how things were going, and he immediately choked back tears. Wiping sweat from his face in the heat of the church packed with young people, he mumbled something about so many files he was supposed to go through that just broke his heart. So sickening…those poor kids…such sick priests–these are words I recall him saying as he shook his head at something both terrifying and inexplicable through which he was forced to wade. Even those six words were probably more than he was allowed to convey.
Whistleblowers detail “secret archives” as elaborate filing system deliberately designed to protect pedophiles
In 2001, Marcin Gutowski focused in on those diocesan files when he interviewed Father Biernat. That’s because, as this priest was in a unique position to discover, the Diocese of Buffalo tucks away clergy sexual abuse reports in such a labyrinth of filing cabinets throughout different rooms in the chancery building, it makes it almost impossible for anyone to systematically trace clergy sexual abuse reports or track the activity of a given pedophile priest over time. This, Father Biernat assures the interviewer, was devised on purpose.
Even though this Polish documentary series is not yet available in the United States and not yet available in English, with help of an anonymous source, I was able to watch the entire series and obtain an English translation. Let’s take a look at two brief segments of this episode in which Father Biernat explained the deceptive filing system used by the Diocese of Buffalo. The point of exposing this is not so much to learn about their manner of archiving this material but to take a good look into the minds of the officials who would support and operate such a system—officials still alive and working in and around our diocese today who never faced accountability. That accountability, my fellow laity, is part of our responsibilities (if we read Vatican II documents with any honesty) because it is not reasonable to expect officials to hold themselves or their predecessors to account, as Bishop Malone testified, stating he would not throw another bishop “under the bus.”
The two clips below from the Polish documentary were recorded on my phone camera as the video played on my computer monitor. That accounts for the poor quality and cropped/distorted/dusty screen. I dubbed these clips in English based on a translation I obtained. The investigative journalist interviewing Father Biernat and Shioban O’Connor is Marcin Gutowski.
Whistleblowers and survivors suffer consequences of reporting abuse
Others interviewed in this 56-minute episode included Wieslaw (Wes) Walawender, a diocesan seminarian in the early 1990s. He said he was kicked out of seminary formation after he attempted to report incidences of clergy sexual abuse. One such allegation, which Walawender publicly revealed for the first time in the documentary, concerned Bishop Grosz involving a child. To Walawender, the incidence had all the appearances of abuse, particularly after he talked to the boy involved. So he said he reported what he observed to church authorities in Rome. [Gutowski says in his documentary he tried to contact Bishop Grosz to get him to comment on these serious allegations. Innocence is presumed unless verified to the contrary]. It wasn’t that Walawender’s attempts to report that incident and another suspected clergy sexual abuse case fell on deaf ears, even in the Vatican, he stated. Diocesan officials informed him of their knowledge of the confidential letter he sent to Rome, Walawender said. It’s that Church officials simply didn’t appear to care, he noted, as he never heard about an investigation which may or may not have ocurred. Both cases he described were based on observed circumstances he alleges which today’s diocesan-mandated child protection training programs encourage lay volunteers to report. But to what end?
Of course, his seminarian days were over in Buffalo following such reports made through what he understood to be proper channels, so he transferred to the seminary for the Archdiocese of Baltimore. There Walawender actually had an opportunity to talk face-to-face to Pope John Paul II about a letter he had sent to the pope concerning the problems he observed in the Diocese of Buffalo. To authenticate Walawender’s claim about this encounter, documentarians were able to locate CNN video of this brief discussion between the young seminarian and the pope during a 1995 papal visit to Baltimore. Walawender said nothing came of his attempts to turn Pope John Paul II’s attention to Buffalo 23 years before the diocese’s sexual abuse scandals made international headlines.
Walawender said he made it as far as ordination to the diaconate before he was sexually molested by his parish priest. He said he reported that crime to Baltimore church officials who did an investigation that he said went nowhere. Incredulously, he said diocesan officials assigned his alleged sexual molestor to evaluate him for his fitness for priesthood. Then Walawender was sent packing–his candidacy for priesthood cancelled by the Archbishop of Baltimore a few weeks before his ordination date. Among reasons listed: he “didn’t sufficiently understand American culture,” Walawender said. He took long pauses throughout this interview as the documentary cut to film footage of Niagara Falls cascading down an abyss on a cold, gloomy day.
This entire episode is one torturous interview after another–a veritable trail of tears and suffering erupting face after humiliating close-up face on the screen. These poor souls also included Kevin Brun, who recounted not only his molestation by the same priest who later (the diocese affirmed) molested Father Biernat, but the 2018 letter he wrote to the diocese detailing what this priest did to him. In a heartbreaking turn of events, Brun said his young adult son found the letter, discussed it with him and committed suicide the following day. Brun said he believes his son was traumatized by what he learned happened to his father.
Such horrifying accounts are offered in this documentary for you and for me, dear laity. Not one diocesan official has been held accountable for protecting/enabling credibly-accused clergy sex offenders because we laity do not demand it. We cowardly leave such fights up to the poor souls who were child-victims sacrificed on the altar of the sexual appetites of their clergy sexual molesters. Shame on us. Kevin Brun joined survivor efforts, not laity’s efforts, to have diocesan pensions revoked from his alleged molester and other credibly accused clergy sexual abusers.
A basic sense of humanity
Daniel Ellsberg, who leaked the Pentagon Papers to the press in 1971, is now 91 years old. This most famous American whistleblower recently lamented to the New York Times that few people followed his lead over the years. He observed that for most people, when it comes to whistleblowing, a basic sense of humanity tends to take a back seat to personal concerns about job security or fear of reprisal. “One loses track of a sense of higher responsibility–as a citizen, as a human being,” he said of people who know of corporate/government abuses but refuse to raise their head above the crowd for fear of getting picked off. Ellsberg too spoke of a protection system which governments (and we can say, church organizations) have built to ward off “revelation of mistakes, false predictions, embarrassments of various kinds and maybe even crimes.” He spoke of a “secrecy system… predominantly to protect officials, administrations from embarrassment and from accountability…”
Part of the secrecy system in place to protect Catholic Church officials from accountability is a coordinated effort among bishops and their higher-ups to spin the gruesome narratives about their management practices into an historic time piece of a bygone era laced with euphemisms. We laity mindlessly eat this stuff up. For example, Bishop Malone said, “Sometimes, and we see now this was a mistake, they [psychological treatment centers] would recommend to the bishop, he’s OK [the clerical sex offender], you can put him back in the ministry. We would never do that now.” The chairman of the Polish bishops conference recently defended any perceived “mistakes” of John Paul II’s era in Poland by stating that “…at that time, not only in Poland, different laws were in force than today, social awareness and customary ways of solving problems were different.” Today, Bishop Michael Fisher in Buffalo touts new policies and procedures in place that we didn’t have back in the day.
But can we laity not exercise our intellectual integrity to pronounce that the Gospel of Jesus Christ does not change; and by applying the measure of the Gospel in any age, we can justly proclaim that a priest putting his genetalia in the orifice of a child is an evil that cannot be nuanced or explained away by some church official’s interpretation of “cultural norms” of the past? Any diocesan official who protects or otherwise enables such clergy who engage in this evil should be held to account.
Church officials are groomed in corrupt practices, new documentary films claim
The situation is worsened when we see that those very officials who excused their activities that protected or enabled sexual predators are still operating in our diocese in significant roles as: leaders in diocesan reform efforts, rectors, pastors, retired bishops and advisors. Bishop Fisher’s ecclesial background naturally fuels skepticism about how he was groomed in church governance. The notorious sexual predator, ex-cardinal Theodore McCarrick elevated Father Fisher from priest to vicar general of the Archdiocese of Washington D.C. where he worked with the defrocked cardinal on his executive team. McCarrick’s successor, Cardinal Donald Wuerl, who resigned after accusations that he had covered up for McCarrick (and covered up for other clerics while he was Bishop of Pittsburgh), ordained Bishop Fisher as auxiliary bishop before his assignment to Buffalo. That he was an incredulous choice for this beleaguered diocese is something the Polish documentary couldn’t help but highlight.
In a recent letter [here and here] Bishop Fisher ordered to be distributed at all weekend Masses throughout the diocese, he insisted that no employee who has been credibly accused of “abuse will ever be shielded.” He does not offer us the same assurances for diocesan employees he continues to protect who are documented to have had a hand in covering up/enabling such abuse. Experts in the clergy sexual abuse crisis insist this is deliberate.
Their theory is: this coordinated project of silence is managed by bishops who have been groomed over decades –in the protection system Daniel Ellsberg described–who in turn have groomed their officials to take their places. This institutional incestuous breeding is a key premise of yet another new documentary film, Manufacturing the Clerical Predator (2022). Produced under guidance of a program at Harvard University, it advances the notion that the distinct form of sexual violence we see among Catholic clergy is actually produced, manufactured, and reproduced within the clerical system itself. The bishops don’t have to be predators themselves, they just need to maintain the silence with intention–throw lawyers at a crisis, threaten victims, refuse to hold executives to account, suspend whistleblower priests, maintain disorganized files, speak in euphemisms, all the while promising renewal.
At the end of the documentary film, a former seminarian asks the obvious question: “If the same bishops and diocesan officials who covered up clergy sexual abuse crimes are touting so-called ‘reforms’ they put in place, why should we take their word for it?” The editorial board of The Buffalo News echoed the same skepticism: “The most trusted people in the community – in any community – preyed on children, and the church that presented itself as godly protected the abusers and consigned the innocents to decades of suffering. It’s a stain that doesn’t wipe away.”
That Father Biernat is still suspended from active ministry in the Diocese of Buffalo is all the evidence we need that our bishop still doesn’t get what actual reform looks like. Treating whistleblowers as traitors verifies that our officials do not deserve our trust to manage this diocese.
If we rank-and-file laity are derelict in our moral duty to seek justice and hold our officials to account, those laity hand-picked by our bishops to advise them have downright abandoned their posts. I wrote a book on their peevish response to Father Biernat’s cancellation which you can read here. By not bothering to address even this single case, we laity collectively join our bishop in tacitly enforcing a universal gag order on all diocesan employees (especially clergy) who witness corruption or criminal/abusive behavior. The retaliation1 against diocesan whistleblowers is just too damn severe.
The Chancellor of the Diocese of Buffalo, Sister Regina Murphy, SSNM, long-entrenched (read: groomed) in diocesan headquarters with perhaps the most comprehensive knowledge of clergy abuse cases, drew the line in the sand in terms of lifting his suspension. She emailed Father Biernat:
“Please note that a penal remedy [imposed by Bishop Malone on the eve of his retirement] is not permanent and can be lifted if you do what has been requested of you and if you truly regret what seem to have been poor choices on your part. I hope this time of discernment has been good for you.”
“Poor choices”–her term for whistleblowing.
As Father Biernat has revealed, he has done everything his bishop has asked of him to lift his suspension from ministry–including passing a psychological evaluation2 with flying colors, as he mentions in the Polish documentary. But, he has said, he will not apologize for following his informed moral conscience by whistleblowing.
I offer another clip gleaned from the Polish documentary with this brave whistleblower offering some insight into his cancellation/suspension in light of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Listen to him as he explains precisely what our diocesan officials struggle to comprehend:
“They (laity) are, by reason of the knowledge, competence or outstanding ability which they may enjoy, permitted and sometimes even obliged to express their opinion on those things which concern the good of the Church.” –From the Second Vatican Council document, Lumen Gentium (Chapter IV:37)
Banner photo: Siobhan O’Connor (left) and Rev. Ryszard Biernat. Screenshot from Bielmo, episode title “Abyss of lies.” Marcin Gutowski, senior long-form journalist, Czarno na białym TVN24–Warner Brothers/Discovery.
*Bielmo video files included text for Download permissions: “Viewers can download.”