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Prominent local Catholics demand reforms to Buffalo Diocese

Several prominent Catholics angry about the Buffalo Diocese’s ongoing clergy sex abuse scandal announced Thursday they have started an effort to reform the diocese’s governance structure and restore trust with the area’s 600,000 Catholics.

The nine area Catholics – including the presidents of Canisius College and one of the area’s largest development companies, the former president of the American Medical Association and an attorney who helped lead the diocese's recent $100 million capital fundraising campaign – released a joint statement stating they are “brokenhearted, disillusioned and, yes, angry” about the sex abuse crisis in the diocese and the broader church in the U.S.

The statement stopped short of calling upon Bishop Richard J. Malone to step down, but it made clear that the group of lay Catholics demands change.

“We are dismayed at the state of our diocese and fearful for its future,” the statement reads. “We do not believe that the diocese is on the right path or is able to reform itself without significant involvement of the laity. We are determined to help the church in Buffalo look forward, implement meaningful reforms, and rebuild the faithful’s trust and confidence.”

The group’s work will not be done in concert with the diocese, said Canisius College President John J. Hurley.

The group also includes Thomas R. Beecher Jr., attorney of counsel with Phillips Lytle LLP and co-chairman of the diocese’s recent Upon This Rock campaign that raised $100 million in pledges; Carl J. Montante, president and managing director of Uniland Development Co.; and Dr. Nancy H. Nielsen, senior associate dean of the University at Buffalo Jacobs School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences; and former AMA president.

Rep. Brian Higgins, Lt. Gov. Kathy Hochul, two Catholic church deacons and others already have urged Malone to resign, and members of the new lay group were asked if they were urging the bishop to step aside, as well.

Some of them said they didn’t feel it was their place to do that. Nielsen said the current diocese leadership will need to discern for themselves whether they can lead the “cultural change” necessary for healing in the Buffalo Diocese.

“But,” she said, “you can’t lead if no one’s following.”

Getting Malone to relinquish his leadership was not their ultimate goal and, in and of itself, would not lead to healing and a restoring of confidence in the diocese, added Nielsen.

“This predated our current bishop. It will postdate him. So without changes in those systems, we couldn’t have confidence. We must figure out how go forward,” she said. “We’re not going to focus on who's responsible. I can tell you there’s plenty of blame to go around, and all over the country. So let’s not forget that.”

Montante said it was “premature” to come to a conclusion about whether Malone needed to resign.

“We are not going to be able to remove the bishop of Buffalo. That’s for the hierarchy in the church,” he said. “It’s only the bishop himself or his superiors who will make that decision. But I think things will become clearer as time goes on just what has to happen. In the meantime, this is a vehicle we can use to begin the healing process and to develop an accountable, transparent way of running this diocese going forward.”

Several members of the lay committee have been among the area’s most generous donors to Catholic causes and have volunteered in a variety of Catholic lay leadership and advisory positions.

Montante expressed his personal outrage at the sense that he and other faithful, committed volunteers and donors had been “played” by diocesan leaders, who for years assured parishioners that they had appropriately handled problem priests and weren’t covering up their transgressions.

“I’ve got one word for it: anger,” he said. “I was a member of the Bishop’s Council of the Laity for more than 25 years and on that council we were supposed to have learned what was really going on in the diocese and there was never once a hint of any problem with the Diocese of Buffalo.”

John Hurley acknowledged that he felt a “sense of betrayal” when it became clear that the Buffalo Diocese had operated similarly to other dioceses plagued in the past by abuse scandals.

“We were assured that the lawyers had looked at this, that the diocese had gotten sound advice and that they had handled this properly, and it now appears not to be the case,” he said.

Hurley said he began coming to that conclusion eight months ago when the Rev. Norbert F. Orsolits admitted to The News that he had molested dozens of boys in the 1970s and 1980s. It became even more obvious when a Pennsylvania grand jury report was released in August showing 300 priests in six dioceses had abused more than 1,000 child victims, he said.

Other high-profile Catholics who have signed on with the group are: Paul D. Bauer, a retired financial executive who is co-founder of the BISON Scholarship Fund;  Robert M. Greene, a retired attorney with Phillips Lytle and chairman of Catholic Health's board; Hurley's wife, Maureen O. Hurley, retired executive vice president and chief administrative office of Rich Products Corp.; Mary Travers Murphy, executive director of the Family Justice Center of Erie County; and Nancy W. Ware, founder and president of EduKids, the area’s largest child care provider.

The group is organizing a symposium on Nov. 28 in Canisius College’s Montante Cultural Center and researching what reforms have been put in place in other dioceses that encountered similar scandals.

Hurley said the lay group reached out to Malone on Tuesday evening with its plans.

“He described the plan for the symposium as ‘very solid’ and ‘surely necessary.’ He told me that while we didn’t require his affirmation or support to proceed, he wanted us to know that we had his support,” said Hurley.

A diocesan spokeswoman said in an email that the bishop described the people on the organizing committee as excellent and called the initiative they're working on as "a good thing."

Also Thursday, the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights, an advocacy group based in New York City, issued a statement critical of the "60 Minutes" report, as well as Malone and Siobhan O'Connor, the bishop's former administrative assistant who leaked to the media internal church documents about clergy sex abuse.

"None of the parties to this story come to the table with their hands clean," Catholic League President Bill Donohue said.

Donohue described as "indefensible" Malone's assigning of the Rev. Arthur Smith as a cruise ship chaplain after Smith was accused of inappropriate behavior with two men and a boy. He also criticized O'Connor for retaining as her lawyer Mitchell Garabedian, who has frequently sued the church in clergy sex abuse cases. And he accused "60 Minutes" of ignoring the sexual misconduct scandal at CBS, the network that airs the weekly news magazine show.

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