Bishop Richard J. Malone announced on Monday a series of initiatives, if not quite wholesale reforms, in the way the Diocese of Buffalo deals with the aftermath of the clergy sexual abuse scandal.
The initiatives, made in consultation with the Movement to Restore Trust committee of Catholic laypeople, amount to a map for moving forward. The true test will be whether the diocese walks the walk and adopts meaningful changes to demonstrate that it takes the concerns of abuse victims seriously. Nevertheless, this counts as a hopeful move.
Some of the actions promised by Malone were more concrete than others. Among the more solid proposals, the diocese will:
• Schedule regular listening sessions with the bishop on the abuse scandal, starting in May.
• Establish regular hours on the bishop’s schedule for meetings with survivors of clergy sex abuse and formalize a process for meeting with victims.
• Expand the Diocesan Finance Council to have laypeople as a majority of members and a layperson as chair.
• Expand the use of an ethics hotline to include all reports of any ethical improprieties, sexual abuse or harassment or financial fraud.
The importance of meetings with victims and the listening sessions should not be discounted. A common complaint among sexual abuse victims is that no one would listen when they complained to their parish hierarchy or other church officials about crimes perpetrated against them. The church’s cover-up culture made them feel their voices were silenced.
The Movement to Restore Trust released a series of recommended reforms for the diocese in March, and Malone’s initiatives are in response. Canisius College President John J. Hurley is one of the prominent local Catholics on the MRT panel. His presence lends it considerable credibility.
“We fully recognize that these first steps are not complete solutions, but the process of restoring trust is underway,” Hurley said Monday.
Some of the steps announced by Malone are a bit vague. The bishop agreed to review the diocese’s approach to releasing names of clergy accused of sex abuse, and to review how the diocese handles sex abuse claims to ensure victims receive proper pastoral care. The diocese also will establish a new process for handling allegations of sex abuse or misconduct made against a bishop.
Reviewing and re-evaluating are positive steps, but, to paraphrase the Irish statesman Edmund Burke, statements made never intending to go beyond promise cost nothing. We have no reason to doubt Malone’s sincerity, but the chancery’s follow-through will be critical to turning new ideas into action, initiatives into real reforms.
St. Bonaventure University President Dennis R. DePerro last week became the latest public figure to call on Malone to resign. DePerro’s statement said Malone “hasn’t been transparent enough along the way for Catholics in Western New York to continue to have confidence in his leadership.”
Malone has identified just 80 of the 176 priests that the diocese acknowledged last November had been credibly accused of abuse. The bishop says it’s not right to reveal the names of priests who are deceased and have only one abuse allegation against them.
The Movement to Restore Trust’s approach is to provide support and guidance to Malone, rather than try to drive him out. If the panel can convince the bishop to make transparency more than just a slogan, and to stop sheltering the names of many potential criminals from public scrutiny, that will earn the bishop some major trust points.