‘Tragedy of epic proportions’: Buffalo bishop responds to deluge of abuse lawsuits

Bishop Fisher Bishop Michael Fisher at the 2019 USCCB spring general assembly, June 2019./ Kate Veik/CNA

After nearly 1,000 abuse claims were filed against the Diocese of Buffalo in the last two years, the diocese’s Bishop Michael Fisher called it a “tragedy of epic proportions.”

The time window to file civil lawsuits in old cases of child sex abuse in New York expired on Aug. 14. A total of 924 claims were filed against the Diocese of Buffalo, more than any other diocese in the state. Nearly 11,000 total claims were filed in New York under the act.

“It is of paramount importance to deal with the Church’s obligations to survivors forthrightly and to work to repair the enormous damage that has been done not only to the reputation of the Church here in Western New York, but most importantly to the lives of those affected,” Bishop Fisher stated in a letter dated Aug. 21. Fisher was installed as bishop of Buffalo in January 2021.

The state’s Child Victims Act set up the temporary window to file civil lawsuits in old cases of child sex abuse where the statute of limitations had already expired. While the time window was originally set to close last year, former governor Andrew Cuomo (D) extended it another year due to the ongoing pandemic.

“My reason for communicating with you on these matters has everything to do with my view that as the Catholic faithful of Western New York, we are very much a family that must face its challenges together with candor and with as much transparency as we are able to provide,” Bishop Fisher stated to Catholics in the diocese.

Fisher added that the diocese is “fully focused on fulfilling what this process is all about,” meaning a “sense of restitution, closure and healing for all those who were abused by members of the clergy.” 

The diocese declared bankruptcy in February 2020, already facing hundreds of Child Victims Act lawsuits at that time. Fisher said on Saturday that, following the total number of lawsuits filed in the last two years, the coming bankruptcy process “will likely be a lengthy one.” 

“Throughout this process, we will seek just treatment for all survivors while also ensuring, as much as possible, that dedicated Church funds are directed for the purpose they are intended - sustaining the work of evangelization and ministry across Western New York,” he said. 

The payouts given to survivors of clerical abuse “will ultimately be incorporated to and implemented as part of an overall reorganization plan,” he noted, adding it could take more than a year to finalize. 

“The terms of the final plan will be voted on by survivors before it can be approved by the Federal Bankruptcy Court,” he said. “Essential to approval is that the Court finds that the plan treats all abuse survivors and other creditors of the Diocese fairly and equitably.”

By taking these steps, Fisher said that it was his “hope and fervent prayer” that the Diocese of Buffalo would “begin to move forward and ultimately bring to a close this very painful and sordid chapter” in the history of the diocese. 

The bishop wrote that it is an “essential part of (his) ministry” to meet with anyone who has been harmed. 

He pledged that he would listen to them and “express my own helplessness to erase the pain that afflicts them through no fault of their own; and ultimately to appeal to the all-encompassing and unconditional love of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit to provide comfort and bind their wounds.” 

Bishop Fisher was installed as bishop of Buffalo in January 2021, taking over a diocese that has been rocked by scandals in recent years. Former bishop Richard Malone resigned in December 2019, following a Vatican-ordered investigation amid claims that he mishandled cases of clergy sex abuse. 

“The well-being and healing of those who have experienced the evil of abuse at whatever stage in their lives are rightly the concern of us all,” Fisher said in his Aug. 21 statement.

“These are not merely words but a mandate derived from the very Gospel of Jesus Christ.” 

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