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'Our victim survivors, they are our family': Bishop highlights hope at symposium

The two sat side by side Saturday morning. They even hugged.

One was Michael Whalen, whose heart-wrenching story about what he suffered at the hands of a local priest launched the clergy sex abuse scandal that has rocked the Catholic Diocese of Buffalo for the past year.

The other was Albany Bishop Edward Scharfenberger, who has been assigned by the Vatican to serve as an interim leader of the diocese, to untangle a nest of pain and bring healing to the diocese.

They sat together as members of the Roman Catholic family at a symposium of the Movement to Restore Trust, and both had something to say about how a family of God needs to mend itself.

"Jesus didn’t send us into the world just as lone rangers. He commissioned us to work with one another," Scharfenberger said. "I believe that our victim survivors, they are our family."

Whalen talked about family, too, as he laid out the position of abuse survivors.

Bishop Edward B. Scharfenberger speaks with reporters at the Catholic Center in Buffalo on Wednesday, Dec. 4, 2019. (Mark Mulville/Buffalo News)

"I tell my kids all the time that family is everything," he said. "I’m here to see how my family and survivors can trust the church again."

Speaking directly to Scharfenberger, he said, "You say we are family, so please take care of your children, because the other bishop did not."

He received two standing ovations from the roughly 175 attendees.

The audience listened about the impact a possible bankruptcy might have on the diocese and individual parishes. They also used their mobile phones to participate enthusiastically in an exercise to highlight the qualities most needed in the next permanent bishop of the Diocese of Buffalo.

The words that repeatedly showed up in projected word clouds: holy, honest, transparent, humble and collaborative.

Desired qualities for the next bishop will be summarized in a letter sent to the Apostolic Nuncio to the United States, Archbishop Christophe Pierre, within the next week or two, said Canisius College President John J. Hurley, an organizing committee member of the Movement to Restore Trust.

But it was Whalen and Scharfenberger who emerged as the focal points of the event.

Whalen later described his conversation with Scharfenberger, when the two sat sat together in the front row, as "great."

"It was like talking to my grandfather – it was that comfortable," he said.

Bishop Edward Scharfenberger-Movement to Restore Trust-2019

Bishop Edward Scharfenberger greets Catholics before the Movement to Restore Trust's symposium began Dec. 7. (Mark Mulville/Buffalo News)

Scharfenberger called his conversation with Whalen "wonderful."

"I thanked him because I believe that our victim survivors are an essential part of our mission," he said.

He also said he initially found the prospect of coming to Buffalo to sort things out as apostolic administrator "kind of terrifying," but he has been heartened and surprised ever since.

"Ever since I’ve come here, I’ve seen nothing but goodwill, fidelity, a desire to help, and I’ve seen it all across the board," he said. "I believe that is the story of what the Buffalo people are, both within the faith community and beyond."

He said he knows he's in a honeymoon period and that as hard decisions are made, not everyone will be happy. He also said he would move with deliberation — not haste — in making decisions about bankruptcy and addressing demands to cut ties with those who have been accused by survivors of covering up abuses.

"It does sometimes get to a point, like in the case of Bishop Malone, where regardless of what a person may or may not have done ... that sometimes it just becomes an obstacle moving forward that that person cannot really be in a position that they’re in," he said.

He added that the diocese will have to undergo restructuring that creates more accountability, but the process must be both organizational and spiritual.

"People did unholy, bad things – evil things," he said. "And the only way to eradicate evil is to return to holiness and to return to God."

Whalen said that throughout his journey over the past year, God never left him. But he now looks forward to someday returning to church.

"I know I will be back in church," he said. "I hope sooner instead of later."

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