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New Buffalo Diocese leader calls bankruptcy filing a 'probability'

Bishop Edward B. Scharfenberger referred Monday to a Buffalo Diocese bankruptcy filing as a "probability" and said “it won’t be long” before a decision is made on whether to file.

Representatives from other Catholic dioceses that went through bankruptcies have told Scharfenberger and his advisers that the process ultimately was the correct way to maintain their missions and address mounting legal claims by childhood victims of clergy sexual abuse.

“What they have said is painful and tedious as it is, that in the long run what resulted was more confidence and that people feel they understand in a credible way what assets are and aren’t available, what the true mission of the diocese is,” Scharfenberger said. “It’s resulted in kind of a purification, a refocus, and that in the long run, survivors do feel that it was to their advantage that the diocese did do that.”

Scharfenberger, who replaced Bishop Richard J. Malone as head of the Buffalo Diocese on Dec. 4, sat for a 30-minute, one-on-one interview with The Buffalo News on Monday afternoon inside a meeting room at the Catholic Center on Main Street. Among the topics he discussed were his first month as apostolic administrator, his recent conversations with victims of clergy sex abuse and what new efforts might be put in place to make the diocese more transparent in its communications with the public.

Scharfenberger said he specifically consulted with the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis, which filed for bankruptcy in 2015 and emerged last year with a settlement in which it agreed to pay $210 million to victims.

He gave no timeline for making a bankruptcy filing for the Buffalo Diocese, but appeared to be leaning toward such a filing, referring to it first as a “possibility” and then calling it the “probability of Chapter 11.”

Scharfenberger said he’s also had conversations about the bankruptcy process with Bishop Salvatore Matano of the Rochester Diocese, the first in New York State to file for Chapter 11 protection.

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Rochester made its filing in September after more than 40 Child Victims Act lawsuits alleging clergy sex abuse were filed against it. The Buffalo Diocese is named as a defendant in more than 225 Child Victims Act cases – more than any other entity in the state.

Some attorneys have speculated that the Buffalo Diocese was delaying its bankruptcy filing until it could find ways to hide assets from creditors. Scharfenberger said that's not true.

“This is something that a bankruptcy court will look very, very closely at,” he said. “Any transfer of funds, if that’s what’s being implied here, to put it out of the reach of the bankruptcy proceedings, would be clawed back in no time.”

Scharfenberger described such a strategy as “subterfuge” and said, “I want no part of that.”

He's talked with survivors

Scharfenberger said he has met or spoken with a “handful” of survivors of clergy sex abuse in the Buffalo Diocese over the past few weeks and is willing to meet with more.

“Every person’s story is unique. They’re very poignant and very complex,” he said. “I approach every case as a spiritual father to a child that’s been wounded.”

In most cases, he said, survivors of abuse are seeking to be listened to and taken seriously.

“They’re not necessarily looking for an answer but a relationship, and let’s face it, in any case of abuse, there’s been a broken relationship, typically with a father, if it’s a priest,” he said. “And many times, a survivor is looking to have that healed in some way.”

Pledges more transparency

Scharfenberger, 71, again pledged to make the diocese a more transparent institution, especially when it comes to revealing how abuse cases were handled.

The diocese, he said, would employ best practices in handling personnel files with respect for confidentiality, but also with an understanding that “criminality cannot hide behind secrecy.

“So we want to know exactly what has transpired over the years,” he said.

He also said he will create a task force to conduct ongoing reviews of diocese files, possibly with the help of an independent investigator to advise him.

On Bishop Malone

Scharfenberger, appointed bishop of the Albany Diocese in 2014, remains in the post while he serves in a temporary capacity as head of the Buffalo Diocese until a new permanent successor to Malone is named. He has been spending Mondays in Buffalo since his appointment here and spends overnights in a home for Jesuit priests on the Canisius College campus.

“I like living in community. I like being not just in a bishop’s house or with one other person,” he said. “They have about 10 residents there, so I can listen to Jesuit gossip, not diocesan gossip, you know.”

Scharfenberger said he still has not read or been provided a copy of a report by Brooklyn Diocese Bishop Nicholas DiMarzio on a Vatican-ordered investigation into the Buffalo Diocese that influenced Malone’s decision to resign.

“Bishop DiMarzio did speak with me so I have some idea,” he said. “Most of the issues that I think were covered in the report have been raised by the media so I think it’s pretty obvious. And MRT (the Movement to Restore Trust) has certainly raised some of those questions as well. So I would not anticipate, if it did leak, or the Vatican chose to share it, I don’t think there would be a lot of surprises quite frankly.”

The only thing Scharfenberger has discussed with Malone since the transition was the best place – emotionally, spiritually and physically – for the former bishop to be in the “immediate future.”

“He has decided that the best thing to do is to take a little time off, think about what he would do in retirement, and I know he’s spending some time with family and friends outside the diocese,” Scharfenberger said.

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