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Bishop visits Swormville church to reassure pastor, parishioners

Hoping to smooth tensions, Buffalo's interim bishop paid a visit Sunday afternoon to a church whose pastor has been outspoken in his criticism of the Catholic Diocese of Buffalo and even withheld payment of the church's annual assessment.

Bishop Edward B. Scharfenberger, apostolic administrator for Buffalo, spoke to 150 to 200 parishioners and answered questions at St. Mary's Church on Transit Road in Swormville for nearly an hour, before presiding over 6 p.m. Mass.

He sought to reassure those in attendance that he took their complaints and pain seriously, and would work to respond to their concerns. And he cited the need to heal and reunite as a community.

"Each and every one of us has the right to feel they are part of who we are. We’re a family," he said.

Paul Snyder, a prominent deacon in the church who was among the first to openly criticize former Bishop Edward Malone and call for his ouster, said he liked what he heard so far. But he still wants to see that translate into actions, noting that the community is suffering from pain and betrayal.

"The bishop came to Buffalo with a good national reputation, and his words seemed sincere," he said. "My concern for this bishop, temporary as he is, is that these are words we have heard from past administrations, and they have lied to us. So it's the actions that we have to be mindful of, not the words."

He added, "The Buffalo community has spoken loudly to the bishops, the cardinals and even the pope, to say that we’ve been wronged as a community. We’ve been harmed profoundly and we won’t accept polite words. We want real action. And whether this bishop will be that man of action, only time will tell."

Scharfenberger's visit, announced both on the church's website and during services beforehand, came in response to a demand by Rev. Robert Zilliox that the bishop come to talk if he wants the diocese to receive St. Mary's annual assessment.

The assessment is used by the diocese to spread assistance across all parishes, by providing aid and supplies for schools or parishes or to help with special projects. But Zilliox said he has refused to pay the money until he is satisfied that the diocese has changed.

Zilliox has been one of the loudest voices within the church since the sexual abuse scandal erupted two years ago. A former adviser to former Bishop Edward Malone, Zilliox revealed during a Sunday Mass in October 2018 that he had been the victim of abuse by a priest 40 years ago when he was a teenager. And he harshly criticized Malone's handling of the scandal during a subsequent interview with CBS newsmagazine "60 Minutes."

'60 Minutes' to feature Swormville pastor who says he was abused as a teen

The chancery of the Buffalo Diocese. (Sharon Cantillon/News file photo)

Last September, he wrote a letter calling upon Malone and Auxiliary Bishop Edward M. Grosz to resign, and urged more than 200 fellow priests to sign it. Malone resigned in early December.

Pope Francis named Scharfenberger as apostolic administrator for Buffalo to restore confidence, and he quickly pledged to be more transparent. But the diocese is now on the verge of seeking Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection to confront its liabilities, which has only enraged critics further.

Zilliox and Scharfenberger were unavailable for further comment. But Snyder said the diocese needs "real leadership" and an emergency plan. And he criticized the Catholic Church as a whole for not taking Buffalo seriously.

"What we need is a full-time leader, and we need one now," Snyder said. "It's not fair for the Catholic Church to say we're in transition. They caused this crisis. They should have marshaled a team and sent them here immediately, and immediately was two years ago."

In his remarks, Scharfenberger spoke of meeting with abuse victims – whom he referred to as "survivors" – and hearing their stories. "It really isn’t about money," he said. "Most survivors just want to be taken seriously, for someone to hear their story and not judge them."

He acknowledged how his own views have changed as a result, noting that when the scandals first broke, "our first reaction is this must be something coming from the media that's trying to attack the Catholic Church."

"I don't doubt that there are people who have issues with the church," he said. "But I've come to believe that that is really not the best way to look at this. There have been people who have suffered from immense abuse of power, and that is coming to light now, and it's better that it comes to light."

Indeed, he said, that awareness and a willingness to speak out is critical. "If any of you are angry about something, don’t repress it. It’s a necessary stage," he said. "If you see something, say something. Do not be afraid."

At the same time, though, he said survivors of sexual abuse are "not all victims of sexual abuse by priests," noting that 80% of sexual abuse is committed in the home, by people the victims know.

And he suggested that "many priests who abuse were also victims of abuse," adding that "we have to try to break this vicious cycle."

During his remarks and Q&A, Scharfenberger also sought to address other issues, particularly related to finances and transparency. He stressed that neither the assessment nor parish collections are used to pay abuse settlements or for other purposes other than what they were intended, as each parish is a separate corporation under state law and he must work "within the parameters of canon law and civil law."

He acknowledged the existence of so-called "secret files" in canon law that usually contain "things that were not for the public forum," such as clandestine or unsanctioned marriages or correspondence with the Vatican. But he insisted that they do not include personnel files for priests and "criminality is not entitled to secrecy."

Citing both state and local legal investigations, he said he wants authorities to "see if there is evidence of anything hidden." And if any victim wants to know something about their abuser, or if it would help for healing, "I would be very happy to sit down with that person and let them review the record."

As for any priest that has been accused of abuse, even if a review or investigation is not yet complete, Scharfenberger said he has taken steps to ensure that "we know where he is and that he has supervision."

He also said that one of the first steps he took was to ensure that the review board that advises the bishop on any cases of abuse is "truly independent," with no representation of Diocesan officials or employees, but only "people who really could speak their minds."

"Don’t be afraid of offending me. Tell me the truth. I can deal with the truth," he said. "Don’t be afraid of what the bishop will say. I want to be told the truth."

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