Common Council members Wednesday criticized the Catholic Diocese of Buffalo for its plan to close a number of city churches and schools, some of the lawmakers contending that it abandons city neighborhoods and appears "to have the whiff of ethnic cleansing."
Lawmakers want assurances the diocese will not sell shuttered churches to unscrupulous buyers who would leave behind "dangerous, gutted eyesores."
Council President David A. Franczyk of the Fillmore District, author of the resolution approved Wednesday, assailed the diocese for acting in a "vacuum" by failing to consider the negative impact the closings will have on some neighborhoods. He also said the mergers will force some Catholics to practice their faith in "generic" suburban parishes, far from city neighborhoods.
Bishop Edward U. Kmiec issued a statement after learning of Franczyk's use of the term "ethnic cleansing" in his bill.
"Not only to make such a statement, but to put it in writing and introduce it into the public record is appalling, irresponsible and misinformed," Kmiec wrote. "It is an affront to all the peoples who have indeed suffered through time by ethnic cleansing, and it is disgraceful to make the Journey in Faith and Grace [the diocese's restructuring plan] analogous to such an evil process."
In its final session of the fiscal year, the Council adopted portions of a bill drafted by Franczyk expressing opposition to any push by the diocese to hastily sell properties to unsuitable buyers.
While all seven lawmakers attending the session voted for the resolution, Council members Richard A. Fontana of Lovejoy and Brian C. Davis of Ellicott objected to some of the harsh language in Franczyk's bill. In particular, Fontana disagreed with the reference to "ethnic cleansing."
Kmiec said parishes throughout all eight counties of Western New York are being reconfigured in an effort to strengthen the church.
Council leaders and diocesan officials plan to meet next month to discuss plans to reuse churches and schools in the city that are targeted for closure.
North Council Member Joseph Golombek Jr., a co-sponsor of the bill, said that as a practicing Catholic, he is disappointed that many parishes are being merged.
"It shows the Diocese of Buffalo is being run more as a business than as a religious institution," Golombek said.
Franczyk contended that the church appears to have little confidence in an effort to revive the city.
"Isn't it all about faith?" Franczyk asked. "Where is the faith? Where is the faith that the city is worth fighting for?"
Franczyk criticized diocesan decisionmakers for acting like "coldhearted bean counters." He added that if the Catholic Church is having financial problems and is discounting the importance of significant structures, perhaps it should consider selling the Vatican.
Diocesan spokesman Kevin A. Keenan gave assurances that church officials will work closely with merged parishes to ensure that unused properties don't become neighborhood nuisances. He added that there are deed restrictions that would prohibit certain reuses. For example, Keenan said, a former church could not be turned into a nightclub.
The diocese also released a long list of Catholic facilities that are located in Buffalo, including schools, hospitals, nursing homes and human services facilities. "Our presence in the city will continue," Keenan said, "and it will continue to be a significant presence."
Announcements were made this week that seven churches on the East Side will likely merge into two parishes.