A cult of secrecy protected serial sex abusers in the Catholic Church for decades. Many victims of childhood sexual abuse had their pain multiplied when adults refused to believe their stories, because few could accept the idea that members of the clergy could perpetrate such crimes.
Abuse survivors and their advocates work to puncture the church’s cover-up culture. Secrecy and silence are their enemies. For many, justice means not getting paid a settlement, but exposing the past misdeeds of the perpetrators.
Bishop Edward B. Scharfenberger’s promise to promote transparency after he took over as apostolic administrator for the Diocese of Buffalo is so far ringing hollow. The bishop pledged in January that abuse survivors would be able to examine diocese files on their alleged abusers at the chancery offices. However, survivors making that request have gotten little or no response.
The bishop seems sincere and well-intentioned. He may have lawyers advising him to keep personnel files sealed while the diocese faces a mountain of litigation. More lawsuits have been filed under the state’s Child Victims Act in the Diocese of Buffalo than in any other entity in New York. However, his deeds need to catch up to his words.
Other examples around the country show that making personnel files public can be done. A Buffalo News story on Wednesday cited the Archdiocese of Chicago’s release of more than 6,000 pages of internal documents related to 30 priests, as part of a legal settlement with abuse victims. The archdiocese also voluntarily posted online nearly 15,000 more related documents.
The Archdiocese of Milwaukee, as part of a 2015 bankruptcy settlement, linked online to thousands of pages of internal documents related to priests named in abuse allegations. The Archdiocese of Los Angeles, as part of a settlement, released about 12,000 pages on 122 named priests. In most cases, the names of victims, third parties and others are redacted, to protect their privacy. Where confidentiality laws prevent the release of details about medical or psychological treatment that accused clergy members received, those details are also kept private.
The Buffalo Diocese filed for Chapter 11 protection in February. A bankruptcy court or terms of a legal settlement may compel the diocese to make public its internal files on accused priests, but why wait?
A diocese spokesman told The News last week that Scharfenberger has formed a “working group” to advise him on disclosure of information on those who have been credibly accused. The bishop is trying to balance the need for giving survivors access to essential information related to their cases with a concern over not violating confidentiality laws.
Sexual abuse survivors have had their rights violated and lives devastated in horrific ways. If there is any thumb on the scale here, it should work in their favor, more than to shield those credibly accused of criminal behavior.
In an interview with The News in early January, Scharfenberger said he would handle personnel files with respect for confidentiality, but also with an understanding that “criminality cannot hide behind secrecy.”
Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis, writing about government transparency in 1913, said that “sunshine is said to be the best of disinfectants.” There is no shortage of dark corners in the diocese’s past waiting to be cleansed.