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Editorial: Bishop Scharfenberger sounds the right notes

The interim leader of Buffalo’s Catholic Diocese makes a strong first impression.

Albany Bishop Edward Scharfenberger, who was named the diocese’s temporary administrator after Bishop Richard J. Malone retired this month, had his first public meeting with Western New York Catholics on Dec. 7, at an event at Canisius College organized by the Movement to Restore Trust.

Scharfenberger met with Michael Whalen, whose story of abuse by a local priest set in motion the clergy abuse scandal in Buffalo. The bishop told Whalen, “I believe that our victim survivors, they are our family” and an essential part of the church’s mission.

Whalen was happy for the chance to meet the diocese’s new boss.

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

Some less comfortable conversations, as well as tough decisions, await Scharfenberger. One will be whether to declare bankruptcy, which may be the diocese’s only choice as a way to cope with the more than 200 lawsuits filed this year under the Child Victims Act. The Diocese of Rochester in September became the first of the state’s eight dioceses to file for bankruptcy protection.

A bankruptcy filing would not shield the diocese from liability in the civil suits filed by those who say they were sex abuse victims. It would shift the suits to bankruptcy court and possibly delay their resolution. Bankruptcy proceedings in other dioceses haven typically taken two to four years to finish.

Penn State University law professor Marie T. Reilly, in a study of diocesan bankruptcies, found average payouts ranged from $60,000 to $1.4 million per accuser.

A bankruptcy court would also scrutinize the diocese’s finances, bringing details to light that the chancery may rather stay private.

Scharfenberger will enjoy a honeymoon period with Catholics here, who for the most part were demanding that Malone move on from his post. His words of comfort and outreach are welcome, but the new bishop’s actions will determine whether he is more than a repackaged version of his predecessor.

One way to demonstrate his commitment to transparency would be for Scharfenberger to make public the diocese’s files on abusive priests, and to ensure an accurate list is made public of clergy members who have been credibly accused of sex abuse. In the spring of 2018, Malone released a list of 42 accused priests.

Siobhan O’Connor, the former chancery employee turned whistleblower, had seen a draft of the list containing 117 names. She took her concerns to the media, a key event in the unraveling of Malone’s tenure here.

As noted before on this page, there are problems in the Catholic Church that extend far beyond the Buffalo Diocese and all the way to Rome. The culture of secrecy, a resistance to changes such as the need to let women play a more prominent role in the clergy, and giving the laity more say in the church’s affairs – as called for by Canisius College President John Hurley and the Movement to Restore Trust – are longstanding obstacles that the Vatican must address.

Malone, with a note of defensiveness in the letter announcing his retirement, cited “systemic failings in the worldwide handling of sexual abuse of minors by members of the clergy,” meaning the problems in the diocese were not his fault alone. On that we must agree.

Expectations must be tempered a bit for the diocese’s administrator, whose job is an interim one and who will be splitting time between Albany and Buffalo. Still, our diocese and its 600,000 Catholics deserve a good-faith effort by Bishop Scharfenberger to help the diocese turn a new page.

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