Analysis: What is waiting for Bishop Fisher in Buffalo?

shutterstock 1485335360 St. Joseph Cathedral in downtown Buffalo. | Shutterstock

On Tuesday, the Vatican announced that Bishop Michael Fisher, auxiliary bishop of Washington, D.C., will serve as the next Bishop of Buffalo. He will be installed as bishop on Jan. 15, taking over a diocese rocked by scandals in recent years.

Awaiting Fisher on his first day is a chancery with a tarnished reputation, a diocese named in hundreds of clergy abuse lawsuits, an ongoing bankruptcy process, the possible closure of parishes and schools, and a faithful weary of scandal.

At his introductory press conference on Tuesday, Fisher pledged transparency-and his promise looks to be tested from the beginning.

A reporter asked Fisher Tuesday if he would demand to see the results of a Vatican-ordered investigation into the diocese that occurred in 2019. He answered that he had not seen the visitation report, and said he would be "delving into those issues."

Another reporter asked the bishop if he would make a clean break with advisors and staffers who were implicated in a recent lawsuit by the Attorney General of New York. The state had alleged in a 260-page lawsuit that the Buffalo Diocese-bishops and staffers-repeatedly mishandled clergy abuse accusations.

"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.

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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.

In one of his last acts as bishop in Dec. 2019, Malone suspended Biernat and forbade him from celebrating the sacraments. Despite Scharfenberger's wishes to "do whatever I can to find a place for [Biernat] in priestly ministry," the priest was never reinstated.

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There are also questions about just how aware the Vatican is to the gravity of the scandal in the diocese.

The Vatican ordered an apostolic visitation of the diocese in 2019 while Malone was bishop, conducted by Bishop Nicholas DiMarzio of Brooklyn. The scope and conclusions of the visitation have not been made public.

Scharfenberger, Malone's temporary successor in Buffalo, also said he had not seen the results of the investigation when he took control of the diocese in January. Fisher, at his introductory press conference on Tuesday, said he had also not seen the results of the investigation. 

Fisher said that Pope Francis' representative in the U.S., Apostolic Nuncio Archbishop Christophe Pierre, did not bring up the scandals in the diocese when officially asking him to accept the appointment to Buffalo. Facing a faithful with high expectations for change and accountability, as well as legal battles on all fronts, Bishop Fisher will likely find that local Catholics want to talk of little else.