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Time for the Buffalo Diocese to confess

The Catholic Diocese of Buffalo faces many agonizing questions, two of which are how best to handle the tsunami of sexual abuse allegations against its priests and how to reclaim the support of parishioners who have stopped giving as a result of the revelations.

Both factors are leading the church toward a decision to seek protection in federal bankruptcy court. Both factors also share a solution: Don’t hide.

The diocese says it is on the verge of seeking Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection. It is facing at least 230 lawsuits while simultaneously struggling with a catastrophic loss of support. The diocese ended 2019 $5 million in the red as many members refused to donate to an organization that tolerated the sexual assaults of children, and did it in ways that ensured further abuses would occur.

The diocese is in its own pain – agony of its own making – but the way forward is clear. To best serve the adults who were abused as children and to regain the trust and support of those who have turned away, the diocese needs to be open about what its leaders did to children and, even more important, what it did to cover up those abuses. It needs, in other words, to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth.

Some critics are justifiably skeptical that will happen. By declaring bankruptcy, lawsuits filed against the diocese under the 2019 Child Victims Act will move out of state court and into bankruptcy court. Other dioceses that have resorted to that step for financial reasons have also used it as a mechanism to conceal the details of what they did – to continue hiding their sins.

On a human level, that impulse may be understandable. No one wants to broadcast the details of their shame. That’s especially true when a venerable organization’s conduct falls so far – so criminally far – below its own standards. For the diocese to voluntarily give up its defenses and tell the world what it did will take an uncommon kind of courage.

Yet, that is the only road open to the Diocese of Buffalo. It can never recover its stature or the support of its disgusted members without first speaking what it did.

The need is evident. The diocese has been operating in the red since at least 2015. For three years, those annual loses totaled no more than $803,727, but in 2018, as the breadth of the clergy scandal started to become known, the deficit reached nearly $1.8 million. Last year, it almost tripled, to just over $5 million.

With that, the diocese cautioned last week that a bankruptcy filing is “imminent.” It may be the only way for it to navigate the flood of lawsuits, far more than any other entity in New York, including the Boy Scouts, schools and other dioceses.

There may even be some fairness in it. In state court, the cases heard earliest could reap most of the awards, leaving little or nothing for the remaining plaintiffs whose years of suffering would be discounted. By moving the cases to federal bankruptcy court, awards could be divided more fairly among the victims.

But bankruptcy is more about assets and liabilities than it is about pain and suffering, let alone wretched culpability. Plaintiff’s powers of discovery are more limited in bankruptcy court, potentially allowing the diocese to keep dirty secrets while denying victims the validation that could be more valuable to them than any money they might be awarded. And, perversely, it would act as validation for those parishioners who have decided to stop donating to the church. Why give if the church doesn’t truly repent?

Bishop Edward B. Scharfenberger, the new temporary administrator of the Buffalo Diocese, pledged transparency when he took over here last month. It was a hopeful sign for the victims of sexual abuse and for parishioners who long for the church to find its way back from disgrace.

The path is honesty. It will hurt, but the alternative is to guarantee that details will continue to find their way to the public for months – and maybe years – to come. To make amends to those who have suffered and to win back the support of its faithful, the diocese first needs to confess.

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