Diocese of Buffalo drafting parish grouping plan

Buffalo cathedral St. Joseph Cathedral, Buffalo | CiEll/Shutterstock

The Diocese of Buffalo is preparing to draft a plan for regrouping parishes, with a finalized plan due in September. 

Bishop Michael Fisher told participants at a May 8 virtual meeting that the plan will include the creation of “families” of three to six parishes that work closely with each other to provide for the spiritual, sacramental and educational needs of parishioners, the Buffalo News reported.

The parish plan will then be implemented over the next three years 

The Zoom meeting with Bishop Fisher was organized by the Movement to Restore Trust, a local group of lay Catholics founded in 2018 amid allegations of abuse cover-up by Bishop Richard Malone, Fisher’s predecessor. 

Malone resigned as bishop of Buffalo in December 2019, and Bishop Edward Scharfenberger of Albany served as the diocese’s interim apostolic administrator until Fisher’s installation in January 2021.

"There are going to be lay leaders that are formed to help guide parishes in this renewal,” Father Bryan Zielenieski, the diocese’s vicar of renewal and development, said at the meeting as reported by Spectrum News. He added that clergy will be assigned to minister to the parish families rather than to single parishes. 

Father Zielenieski added that under the plan, individual parishes would maintain their own identities, corporate structures, trustees and parish councils, the Buffalo News reported. 

In recent years, the diocese has been rocked by revelations of past clergy sex abuse and allegations of a cover-up by former Bishop Malone, former auxiliary bishop Edward Grosz, and diocesan officials. 

In November 2018, Bishop Malone’s former assistant leaked records reportedly showing that the diocese worked with lawyers to conceal credible abuse allegations from the public.

While the diocese had reported the names of some priests credibly accused of abuse, it had not reported others, the records appeared to show. Bishop Malone denied claims that he had covered up abuse.

In September 2019, Malone again faced controversy when his secretary leaked audio of the bishop appearing to admit he knew a diocesan priest faced credible allegations of harassment, grooming, and a violation of the seal of confession - months before Malone removed the priest from active ministry.

Malone, who had led the diocese since 2012, resigned in December 2019 following a Vatican-ordered investigation of the diocese. Pope Francis named Bishop Fisher, formerly auxiliary bishop of Washington, D.C., as the new bishop of Buffalo in December 2020.

Following the August 2019 implementation of the Child Victims Act - which created a temporary “window” for child sex abuse lawsuits to be filed in old cases when the statute of limitations had expired - the Buffalo diocese was named in hundreds of abuse lawsuits. It filed for Chapter 11 reorganization under the U.S. bankruptcy code in February 2020.

At least 260 lawsuits have been filed against Buffalo parishes and schools under the Child Victims Act, the Buffalo News reported. 

A bankruptcy judge ruled in February that the diocese has “no obligation” to retain a law firm on behalf of Bishop Malone and Bishop Grosz, whom the state attorney general is suing for alleged cover-up of sexual abuse. Under the ruling, the bishops must pay their own legal fees, but may still have the right to seek reimbursement from the diocese’s insurers for their legal costs, the Buffalo News reported. 

A federal bankruptcy judge in April put 36 lawsuits against Buffalo Catholic parishes and schools on hold until this fall, stating that the lawsuits’ advancement would interfere with the diocese’s bankruptcy reorganization process. 

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