“I do need to meet people”, stressed Fisher, who had yet to visit the diocese as bishop-elect.
Buffalo Catholics told CNA that they had high expectations for the new bishop. The local faithful, they said, are simply “over” a culture of scandal, carefully-crafted statements by bishops, an apparent desire to protect the diocese’s assets at all costs, and empty promises of transparency. They are waiting for decisive leadership, they said.
“You have to figure out the root cause, and you have to clean it up,” said Gary Astridge of the Buffalo Survivors Group.
Abuse survivors asked to meet with Bishop Edward Scharfenberger of Albany, who has been the interim apostolic administrator for the past year. The previous Bishop Richard Malone resigned amid scandal, but survivors hoped that the interim leader of the diocese would at least hear their concerns in person.
The bishop offered kind words, but “they were all empty,” Astridge said of Malone. The Buffalo Survivors Group reached out to Scharfenberger but the bishop “never contacted us,” he said.
Scharfenberger, as interim leader, had to oversee bankruptcy proceedings during a pandemic, but survivors lamented the lack of an in-person meeting.
Astridge and others told CNA they are hoping for a change of tone - and for results. They hope that Fisher will ask for the clergy abuse files on his first day, “dive into it,” and “meet with us.”
Being heard by the new bishop, Astridge said, is crucial to rebuilding trust.
“I want to go into detail,” said Astridge, who said that he was abused by a priest from the ages of seven to 11. “I want to tell you what this guy did to me.”
Getting to the “root” of the problem in the diocese will mean tackling two decades of alleged mismanagement and cover-up, laid out by the Attorney General’s recent lawsuit.
The state’s suit claims that diocesan “investigations” into clergy abuse accusations often consisted of auxiliary bishop Edward Grosz making phone calls to accused priests, and that from around 2011 until 2019, diocesan lawyers conducted investigations despite apparently clear conflicts of interest.
Priests found “credibly accused” of abuse were quietly removed from ministry without the faithful being informed as to why, with records noting priests simply as “retired,” on “medical leave,” or on “sabbatical.” In some cases, the diocese recommended the accused priests for ministry elsewhere “despite documented knowledge” to the contrary, according to the state AG.
Subscribe to our daily newsletter
At Catholic News Agency, our team is committed to reporting the truth with courage, integrity, and fidelity to our faith. We provide news about the Church and the world, as seen through the teachings of the Catholic Church. When you subscribe to the CNA UPDATE, we'll send you a daily email with links to the news you need and, occasionally, breaking news.
As part of this free service you may receive occasional offers from us at EWTN News and EWTN. We won't rent or sell your information, and you can unsubscribe at any time.
The lawsuit detailed that Malone, who took office in 2012, took five years to make a single referral to the Vatican of a priest credibly accused of abuse, and allowed Fr. Art Smith to remain in active ministry despite several accusations of inappropriate touching of young men.
The state also claims that the bishop worked with lawyers to trim down the diocese’s list of priests “credibly accused” of abuse, a list released to the public in March of 2018 as an act of transparency.
The diocese has also faced criticism for its treatment of whistleblowers, compared to its treatment of credibly accused priests.
While the diocese removed credibly accused priests from active ministry over the years, it still provided them financial assistance and benefits—as required by canon law. However, as the attorney general’s report pointed out, if the accused had been found guilty by a Vatican trial and laicized, the diocese—and by extension the lay faithful who donated their money to parish collections—would not have had to provide for their livelihood.
Meanwhile, according to multiple reports, Fr. Ryszard Biernat—Bishop Malone’s former secretary—is working a job to provide for himself, as he is not receiving benefits from the diocese and has been removed from active ministry for a year.
In September, 2019, Biernat leaked audio to the press which appeared to show Bishop Malone admitting the credibility of accusations made against a diocesan priest, months before that priest was removed from active ministry.