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Viewpoints: Healing, Reconciliation, Reform: A path forward for the Diocese of Buffalo

By John J. Hurley

Special to The News

Last December, the Movement to Restore Trust empaneled six working groups involving about 150 Catholics who developed a series of reports and recommendations for reform in the Diocese of Buffalo. These reports were released to the public this past July. The Movement was working with the diocese on the early stages of implementation of various reforms when it determined in early September that it did not believe that it could make further progress on its reform agenda while Bishop Richard J. Malone remained in office. The Movement called for the bishop’s resignation on Sept. 5. He has refused to resign.

In early October, the Vatican ordered an apostolic visitation of the diocese by Bishop Nicholas DiMarzio, bishop of Brooklyn. DiMarzio completed his visitation in October after interviewing 80 priests and lay people, including two representatives of the Movement’s Organizing Committee. He has submitted his report to the Vatican’s Congregation for Bishops.

As we continue to wait and watch, the Movement believes that we must proceed with our planning for healing and reconciliation in the Diocese of Buffalo. We believe that the essential tasks ahead are the following:

Departure of Bishop Malone: The Movement continues to believe that healing and reconciliation will begin with Malone’s departure – that once he resigns and his resignation is accepted by Pope Francis, a temporary administrator can be appointed for the diocese. The Movement would prefer that the temporary administrator be a bishop from outside the diocese.

We are mindful that finding even a temporary administrator could be a challenge. According to catholic-hierarchy.org, 17 American dioceses have a vacancy or are being served by an archbishop or bishop who has already submitted his retirement letter to the Vatican. In another six dioceses, a bishop will reach retirement age over the next several months.

Discerning the qualities needed in a new bishop: The faithful of the diocese need to contemplate the future of our diocese and our recovery from the terrible evil of clergy sex abuse that has plagued us. The Diocese of Buffalo needs a new bishop who can embrace the Movement’s plan for healing, reconciliation and reform and lead our Church to a new place. The practice of consulting the laity on the appointment of the bishop, as was done in the early days of the Church, should be reinstituted in a formal and public way. The Movement will convene visioning sessions in which the faithful of the diocese can articulate their hopes and aspirations for a new spiritual leader in Buffalo. The Movement would bring those hopes and aspirations forward to the apostolic nuncio, the pope’s representative to the United States, when he is in the process of identifying the next bishop.

Treatment of survivors of sex abuse: As part of the resolution of the sex abuse claims and as a path to healing, the Movement strongly believes that the diocese must improve significantly the sensitivity shown to victim survivors of sex abuse. Throughout our work, we have heard from several victims that the only thing they really wanted was for the bishop to reach out to acknowledge their pain. The diocese should begin by improving the intake process and the speed of the investigative process. As part of these reforms, the diocese should:

• Adopt best practices in the investigative process, utilizing examples from other dioceses that ensure due process, fairness and independence in investigations. We need to do what is necessary to ensure that investigations are completed promptly.

• Publish the steps involved in the investigative process along with the time frame for each step in the process.

• Increase the number of trauma-informed specialists to receive complaints about abuse and provide a victim advocate to guide victims throughout the process.

• Offer victim survivors a meeting with the temporary administrator or a new bishop as soon as an investigation establishes a credible accusation. This offer would be extended to all victim survivors whose claims were judged credible, were resolved through the Independent Reconciliation and Compensation Program (IRCP) or are addressed in the diocese’s expected bankruptcy case.

Filing a bankruptcy petition: The Movement believes that a Chapter 11 bankruptcy filing by the diocese is inevitable.

We understand that after years of suffering, survivors of sex abuse wish to have their day in court. We also understand that many may think that the bankruptcy process will prevent this. We do not believe that a bankruptcy filing will subvert the cause of justice and would suggest that there are potential benefits to a bankruptcy process.

First, a Chapter 11 filing is a way to ensure an expeditious, fair and just resolution of the claims against the diocese. There is simply no way that the diocese can defend 150 or more lawsuits and it is a certainty that sex abuse survivors run the risk of unequal treatment as claimants race to record judgments in individual cases against a dwindling pool of diocesan assets. In a bankruptcy case, a mechanism would be established to allow claimants to file and prove claims. Attorney Kenneth Feinberg, for example, has acted as a special master in mass tort claim cases (e.g. the September 11 Victims Compensation Fund) and has an established mechanism to mediate claims, resolve issues promptly and get deserving creditors their due, all under the supervision of a federal judge. This could be employed in Buffalo.

Second, some have asserted that a bankruptcy filing would be yet another attempt by the diocese to continue to hide information. The federal bankruptcy judge supervises the entire process and creditors are accorded many rights to discover essential information relating to claims and assets. In addition to being bound by the law (which is backed by the court’s powers to compel disclosure and issue contempt sanctions), the diocese should commit to complete transparency in its bankruptcy case so that victim survivors and the faithful of the diocese can be assured that the truth about the sex abuse scandal in Buffalo is fully and finally known. This has worked in other dioceses in the United States that have filed for bankruptcy protection.

Ultimately, in a bankruptcy case, the diocese will need to develop a plan of reorganization in consultation with its creditors, including most significantly, survivors of sex abuse claims. Through the negotiations on the terms of the plans, creditors and the diocese would agree on a sum to be set aside to satisfy the proven claims of creditors through the claims mediation process.

Financial management of the diocese: Given the magnitude of legal and financial challenges facing the diocese, the Movement would recommend that the temporary administrator consider the appointment of a lay chief operating officer of the diocese to oversee financial and operational matters, including the management of the suits filed under the Child Victims Act. The temporary administrator and the chief operating officer, working with the Diocesan Finance Council, would develop a sound plan to stabilize the finances of the diocese, which will include making strategic decisions on the essential ministries of the diocese. This will, by necessity, include a comprehensive analysis of the continuing viability of Christ the King Seminary, which requires significant financial support from the diocese.

During the Chapter 11 case, the temporary administrator and the chief operating officer should hold monthly meetings with the priests of the diocese to update them on progress, respond to questions and offer guidance on ongoing issues.

Pursuit of the Movement’s reform agenda: The Diocese of Buffalo must move forward from this incredibly painful time. In a recent lecture at St. Mary’s University in San Antonio, Bishop Robert McElroy of San Diego observed that the American Church as a whole should embrace a synodal pathway, “one filled with deep and broad consultation, the willingness to accept arduous choices, the search for renewal and reform at every level, and unswerving faith in the constancy of God’s presence in the community.” This is precisely what is needed in Buffalo.

New leadership in the diocese should guide this process and ensure that the consultation is broad and deep. A central recommendation in the Movement’s reform agenda is that the diocese must revive the spirit of the Second Vatican Council (held 1962-65) in Buffalo and develop a true culture of co-responsibility between the ordained clergy and the laity.

There is much in the reform agenda that should be part of such an approach. As we have seen from our own events, as well as the listening sessions held by Malone, the lay faithful are hungry for an opportunity to talk and work on these issues. The Movement would offer to work directly at the parish level – with pastors and the laity through parish councils – to develop a plan for rebuilding the trust in the Church. This plan should be grounded in the essential teachings of the Vatican II and should address:

• The governance and operation of our parishes.

• The essential issues of youth and family faith formation and catechesis.

• Expanding the role of laity, particularly women, in the Church.

Support for innocent priests: In addition to the devastating harm that victims of sex abuse have experienced at the hands of perpetrators, there has been collateral damage to innocent priests in the diocese – holy men committed to proclaiming the Gospel and serving the faithful in the Church. Over the past two years, the Movement has heard anguished stories from priests of the diocese whose only crime was that they wore the same Roman collar as the abusers.

As we pursue a path of healing and reconciliation, we need to develop a plan to rebuild trust and confidence in the innocent priests, including those priests who are or have been exonerated after being wrongfully accused of misconduct. This needs to start at the top with the bishop, but it needs to include all of the faithful so that priests feel valued and supported in their service.

Conclusion: These are dark days for the Church in Buffalo, and the faithful remain like the followers of Christ on Holy Saturday. The crucified Jesus was taken down from the cross and laid in a tomb. His followers were convinced that His death was the end of their movement. As Christians, we know that this was not the case, that the resurrection of Easter Sunday awaited them. We must continue to ground our efforts in prayer and in the hope that there will be new life for our Church in Buffalo.

John J. Hurley is a member of the Organizing Committee for the Movement to Restore Trust and the president of Canisius College.

The Movement to Restore Trust is a group of independent, concerned Catholics formed in October 2018 to address the Diocese of Buffalo’s handling of sex abuse cases involving clergy and help the Church in Buffalo to implement reforms that will restore the faithful’s trust.
The Movement will host a symposium to begin to chart the path forward on Saturday, Dec. 7, from 9 a.m. to 11 a.m. at the Montante Cultural Center at Canisius College. The public is invited. More information is available at https://movementtorestoretrust.org.

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