New York State to assume some oversight of Buffalo Diocese after sex abuse settlement

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

The Diocese of Buffalo has settled a two-year-old lawsuit with New York Attorney General Letitia James over charges that it covered up sexual abuse cases involving priests. 

The deal doesn’t include any financial penalties but institutes structural reforms and appoints the state to exercise some oversight of the diocese. 

The 2020 lawsuit accused the Buffalo Diocese of covering up sexual abuse cases involving more than two dozen priests. The suit charged diocesan leaders of failing to report the accused priests to the Vatican and of misappropriating charitable donations to support their defense.

The agreement between the diocese and the attorney general’s office directs the diocese to appoint a child protection policy coordinator whose responsibilities include making sure the diocese’s child protection policies are abided by, an Oct. 25 press release from the Diocese of Buffalo said.

A former assistant district attorney, former criminal defense attorney, and former parish life coordinator at a local parish, Melissa Potzler, has been appointed to the role.

Potzler will assume the role of vice chancellor and report directly to the diocesan ordinary, Bishop Michael Fisher. Potzler will oversee diocesan processes for compliance with the law and its internal reforms as well. Potzler will also oversee the diocese’s Priest Supervision Program, which Fisher says he implemented last year to “account for priests removed from active ministry.”

In addition to the diocese’s audit of its protocols done by an external firm each year, the agreement includes an additional audit that will be run by an outside firm. That firm will be approved by the attorney general’s office and will have available to it “full access to all relevant departments and records and the full cooperation by all diocesan representatives necessary to conduct the audit,” according to the press release. 

In addition, the state’s approved auditor must be approved by the U.S. Bankruptcy court. Kathleen McChesney, the former executive director of the U.S. bishops’ conference’s national office of child and youth protection, will assume that role. 

“The primary focus of Dr. McChesney will be to ensure that the Diocese of Buffalo complies fully with the commitments outlined in the settlement with the attorney general’s office. An annual report of this additional Compliance Audit will likewise be published and made available in full on the diocesan website annually,” the press release said. 

The agreement also limits the organizational privileges of Bishop Richard Malone and Auxiliary Bishop Edward Grosz. Both bishops faced sexual abuse allegations. Both were accused of covering up sexual abuse and have since resigned. 

Part of the agreement entails that neither bishop will be able to serve as a director, trustee, officer, “or equivalent fiduciary position” in any charitable organization in New York. Both bishops have agreed to the terms, according to the press release. 

The terms of the agreement do not prohibit either bishop from serving in a ministerial, pastoral, or spiritual role, in any diocese or in the state, the press release said. The press release added that “Neither Bishop Malone nor Bishop Grosz has been accused of any financial impropriety.” 

“For far too long, the Buffalo Diocese and its leaders failed their most basic duty to guide and protect our children,” Attorney General James said in her own Oct. 25 press release. 

According to the attorney general’s press release, the agreement mandates that for sexual abuse complaints, the investigation must be completed within 45 days of the “appointment.”

“The Diocese’s Charter-mandated lay review board will now be required to provide its recommendations for each case it investigates in writing,” the attorney general’s press release said. 

“The Diocese will also be required to make public disclosures throughout the process, including posting the lay review board’s recommendation on its website, publicly disclosing names of accused clergy who are suspended pending investigations, and reporting all substantiated complaints. The Diocese will also refer all complaints it receives to law enforcement and will cooperate with any investigations.”

In the diocese’s press release, it says that most of the agreements made are already diocesan policy, per the U.S. bishops’ 2002 Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People. 

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“In choosing to defend the perpetrators of sexual abuse instead of defending the most vulnerable, the Buffalo Diocese and its leaders breached parishioners’ trust and caused many a crisis of faith. As a result of this action, the Buffalo Diocese will now begin a much-needed era of independent oversight and accountability, and my office will continue to do everything in its power to restore trust and transparency for the future. No individual or entity is above the law, and those who violate it in New York state will always be held accountable,” James’ statement said. 

“Today’s agreement memorializes the Diocese’s utmost commitment to ensuring that all young people and other vulnerable persons are safe and never at risk of abuse of any kind by a member of the clergy, diocesan employee, volunteer, or member of a religious order serving in the Diocese of Buffalo,” Fisher said in a letter to the diocesan faithful. 

“As Bishop of the Diocese of Buffalo, I will continue to reiterate that there is zero tolerance for any act of sexual abuse or harassment by a bishop, priest, deacon, lay employee or volunteer toward a young person or adult. Such acts are an affront to who and what we claim to be as Christians and as Catholics,” he said. 

“Moreover, I will continue to insist on the most rigorous monitoring program with regard to those removed from ministry due to credible allegations of sexual abuse, and the strict adherence to the Code of Conduct for priests, deacons, pastoral ministers, administrators, staff and volunteers, and to our well-defined policies and procedures to ensure a safe environment for all,” Fisher wrote.

A video of Bishop Fisher’s statement can be seen below:

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