Accused priests cannot be left 'destitute', Buffalo diocese clarifies

Bishop Edward Scharfenberger of Albany Photo courtesy of the Diocese of Albany CNA 1 Bishop Edward Scharfenberger, Apostolic Administrator of the Diocese of Buffalo. Photo courtesy of the Diocese of Albany.

The Diocese of Buffalo clarified on Friday that priests accused of sexual abuse cannot be left "destitute," even as the diocese acts to withdraw financial support payments.

The diocese had announced earlier this week that 23 priests "with substantiated allegations of sexual abuse" would no longer receive financial assistance or health benefits from the Diocese of Buffalo as of May 1. However, the diocese said that pension plans would not be affected by the decision.

Interim communications director for the diocese Greg Tucker told CNA on Friday that "the diocese recognizes that there are certain canonical obligations to ensure that these individuals are not left destitute and is addressing this."

The decision to cut benefits was made as part of the diocese's bankruptcy proceedings. The diocese had filed for Chapter 11 reorganization in February after it was named in hundreds of clergy sex abuse lawsuits in recent months; a New York law came into effect in August. 2019, waving the statute of limitations on old abuse cases for one year, allowing for lawsuits on decades-old cases to move forward in court.

On Friday, Tucker told CNA that the diocese was aware of its "canonical obligations" to provide for the sustenance of its priests. Canon law requires that clerics incardinated in a diocese receive "decent support," and that bishops provide for the sustenance of priests, including those not in active ministry.

None of the accused priests losing their benefits have been laicized, the diocese told CNA on Wednesday; rather, they were removed from active ministry based on various determinations, including admissions of guilt, a criminal investigation, or corroboration of multiple allegations.

In several of the cases, the allegations reached back decades, Tucker told CNA.

The original list of affected priests has been updated during the week, as local news outlet WKBW reported on Thursday that two of the priests originally on the list of affected clergy had already disassociated themselves from the diocese and were no longer receiving benefits.

However, two more priests with "substantiated allegations" were added to the reported list of affected clergy later in the week; they were not originally listed by the diocese because their allegations did not involve minors.

Bishop Edward Scharfenberger of Albany, apostolic administrator of the diocese, originally told the affected priests that their benefits were being cut in an April 23 letter and in a subsequent conference call.

Local news outlet WKBW reported that the diocese's decision was made as part of its bankruptcy settlement with survivors.

Diocesan pension plans were not affected by the settlement, the diocese said, so the affected priests could continue to draw their pensions if they were already eligible.

All but six of the affected priests were already drawing from their pension benefits, the diocese told CNA on Friday, and three of those priests are eligible for their pension and are now transitioning into the plan.

The pension fund is unaffected by the Chapter 11 proceedings, he said, as it is its own entity and has its own assets separate from the diocese.

The question of whether pension benefits, taken together with other income streams such as Social Security, would be enough to provide sustenance for accused priests is not being determined by the diocese, Tucker said, and the diocese "is not assuming the role of determining what each of these priests requires to cover their monthly expenses given that each individual has his own circumstances and other resources."

However, Tucker said, "Bishop Scharfenberger is himself a canon lawyer, as is Msgr. Sal Manganello, who is vicar general and judicial vicar [of the diocese."

"This was a decision taken in discussions with the creditors committee - as Bishop Sharfenberger's letter [to the affected priests] made clear, the diocese recognizes that there are certain canonical obligations to ensure these individuals are not left destitute and is addressing this." 

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In 2018, the diocese released a list of 42 priests it said had been removed from ministry, retired, or left ministry following allegations of abuse of a minor. However, in October, WKBW reported that the number of priests the diocese had originally listed was actually more than 100.

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