The acting head of the Buffalo Diocese said he “would look forward” to granting a new ministerial assignment to a priest who was suspended after his surreptitious audio recordings helped hasten the resignation of Bishop Richard J. Malone.
Malone suspended the Rev. Ryszard Biernat, his former secretary, after recordings of their private conversations surfaced in the media last September.
But Bishop Edward B. Scharfenberger, who replaced Malone, said he wants to restore Biernat's priestly faculties.
“I certainly want to do whatever I can to find a place for him in priestly ministry,” he said.
Malone resigned in December, less than three months after Biernat’s audio recordings revealed the former Buffalo bishop describing a “love triangle” among priests as a disaster that could force him to step down and making statements in private that contradicted his public ones.
Malone suspended Biernat on Dec. 3, the day before the former bishop's resignation took effect. Malone's decree said that Biernat had breached confidentiality and betrayed "the responsibility of your curial office of Vice Chancellor." He prohibited Biernat from saying Mass publicly, preaching and celebrating sacraments, such as weddings, funerals and baptisms.
Biernat said Malone lacked concern for abuse survivors and should resign. He also accused Auxiliary Bishop Edward M. Grosz of threatening to have him deported to Poland following his complaint as a seminarian in 2004 to Buffalo Diocese administrators of being sexually assaulted by a Buffalo priest.
Grosz, who denied making such a threat, turned 75 in February and per Vatican rules submitted his resignation, which was accepted Monday by the Holy See.
Biernat, a native of Poland who served briefly in parishes before Malone appointed him in 2013 as secretary to the bishop, said on Tuesday that he met with Scharfenberger on Feb. 3 and wrote a follow-up letter Feb. 14 requesting to be assigned as a chaplain at a local hospital.
"The deadline for applying for that position is closing," Biernat said.
Scharfenberger said he has the authority to lift the suspension and give Biernat a new assignment, but he wants to meet with the priest before doing so.
He also said the priest would have to show “accountability for his actions.”
“I would like to have an actual conversation with him, so that part of the process of restorative justice or healing, he would be a part of,” said Scharfenberger. “In the situation with Father Richard, given all he’s experienced and been involved in, that would be an essential part of any reassignment, that conversation.”
Biernat said he's scheduled to meet again with Scharfenberger on March 11.
Biernat said he's not sure what Scharfenberger meant by saying the priest had to show accountability for his actions. "I'll be happy to listen to him and take it from there," Biernat said.
But he also said Grosz, Malone and the Rev. Arthur Smith, the priest he accused of sexual assault, should be held accountable for their actions.
Biernat said he has spent the past few months living a "a very simple life, a very penitential life." He removed himself from public view and took a retreat. He returned to Poland for a visit. He said he misses preaching and working with people and is ready to return to ministry.
Interest in Biernat's status soared after he posted last week on Facebook about a recent encounter with Smith.
The post also led to a social media outcry over Scharfenberger’s decision to allow priests who have been accused of abuse to concelebrate at a private, priests-only Mass.
Smith has denied sexually assaulting Biernat. According to the Facebook post, Smith approached Biernat at lunch after the Mass on Feb. 24 and asked if there could be mediation between the two priests because Smith claimed that he never wanted to hurt Biernat. Biernat quoted Smith as saying that “he just wanted to show me how much he loved me and how much he cared for me.”
Biernat said the latest encounter with Smith traumatized him again. He said he plans to file a sexual harassment complaint against Smith with the diocese's human resources office.
"This is ridiculous that I should be sexually harassed in the workplace, and it's up to leadership to make sure that doesn't happen," he said.
Other victims of abuse and advocates for abuse survivors expressed outrage that priests with substantiated claims of abuse against them participated in the Mass, and that Smith in particular was allowed to be at the event with a person he victimized.
Substantiated abuser; removed from ministry; case will be sent to Rome 2018 concelebrated Mass in persona Christi with @AlbBishopEd today. If this can happen in my case, what hope for justice does ANY victim have? I have lost all hope. I want answers. How much longer, Lord? pic.twitter.com/uq0qsJmp1N
— Stephanie McIntyre (@BluefireV1) February 25, 2020
Robert M. Hoatson, president of the victim’s advocacy group Road to Recovery, said Sunday that Scharfenberger had disrespected and revictimized survivors by letting alleged molesters celebrate Mass and socialize with him.
Hoatson, who had urged Malone’s resignation, called on Scharfenberger to step down for the good of abuse victims.
Scharfenberger said Monday he felt terrible that abuse survivors were hurt by what was intended to be a private Mass for priests only, in connection with a meeting to discuss the diocese’s imminent Chapter 11 bankruptcy filing.
“Since my time in Buffalo is limited, I wanted to make sure I got everybody together, so I didn’t put any limits on who would attend,” Scharfenberger said.
At least four priests who were removed from ministry due to child sex abuse complaints and were awaiting final adjudication of their cases attended the Mass. Canon law allows such suspended priests to celebrate Mass privately, if the Holy See has not yet ruled on their cases.
Scharfenberger said he should have anticipated more scrutiny of his decision to have a private Mass that included priests accused of abuse.
“Would I do it differently next time? Sure,” he said.
Last week’s priest gathering shouldn’t be interpreted as a restoration of the faculties of suspended priests to celebrate the sacraments publicly, he added.
“But the one thing that really bothers me is the idea that the Mass … it’s not a reward for good behavior,” he said. “It’s what sinners do to gather and answer God’s mercy.”