Peter Jesserer Smith is a staff reporter for the National Catholic Register. He covered Pope Francis’s historic visit to the United States in 2015, and to Jerusalem and the Holy Land in 2014. He has reported on the Syrian and Iraqi refugee crisis, including from Jordan and Lebanon on an Egan Fellowship from Catholic Relief Services. Before coming on board the Register in 2013, he was a freelance writer, reporting for Catholic media outlets as the Register and Our Sunday Visitor. He is a graduate of the National Journalism Center and earned a B.A. in Philosophy at Christendom College, where he co-founded the student newspaper, The Rambler, and served as its editor. He comes originally from the Finger Lakes region of New York State.
BUFFALO, New York — Bishop Edward Scharfenberger of Albany, whom Pope Francis appointed with oversight of the scandal-ridden Diocese of Buffalo until a new bishop is selected, has come under fire for concelebrating Mass Feb. 24 with priests credibly accused of sexual abuse.
The invitation-only event for priests, held at St. Leo the Great Catholic Parish in Amherst and followed by a luncheon, was intended, according to Greg Tucker, the diocese’s spokesperson, “as a private Mass to call all priests of the diocese — those in good standing and those not — to pray for the healing of victim-survivors and to encourage penance for the harm caused by members of the clergy.”
According to WKBW and later confirmed by the Register, Father Fabian Maryanksi, who was listed on the Diocese of Buffalo’s website as credibly accused of sexual abuse and removed from active ministry, unable to celebrate Mass publicly, was one of the concelebrants at the Mass. Reportedly, at least two other priests credibly accused of abuse were in attendance, but did not concelebrate.
WKBW reported another priest removed from ministry for a credible accusation of child sex abuse, Father Mark Wolski, also gave the opening prayer at the priests’ lunch. The diocese’s internal review board had substantiated allegations against both priests in December 2018.
Despite the presence of these priests and of others accused of abuse, Tucker maintained most priests were liturgically vested and sitting in the pews rather than up on the altar.
“There was no prominent role given to any of the priests in attendance at Mass,” he said.
Yet the Mass has opened up deep wounds in the diocese and has shocked survivors of sexual abuse in the diocese.
“I cannot think of anything that is more a mockery of Christ than a substantiated abuser concelebrating Mass with the bishop,” Stephanie McIntyre, one of Father Maryanksi’s alleged victims, told the Register.
Siobhan O’Connor, one of the whistleblowers on the cover-up of sexual abuse in the Buffalo chancery, told the Register it was incomprehensible that Bishop Scharfenberger would not have understood this decision to allow priests credibly accused of sex abuse to concelebrate with him would result in outrage.
“This situation has damaged people's faith and caused great distress to many survivors,” she said. “Allowing this concelebration to occur has only caused further damage to the diocesan ‘family’ Bishop Scharfenberger speaks of so often.”
Bishop Scharfenberger in a statement apologized for the harm from his decision to allow priests credibly accused of child sex abuse to participate in the Mass and lunch, but qualified his decision on the basis that the event was meant to be private.
“This was a private Mass — not open to the public— which had as its emphasis the need for true personal remorse and penance for the harm caused to victim-survivors,” he said. “I deeply regret that this decision to gather privately in prayer and penance opened the door to yet another wound for those harmed.”
The bishop said the participation of certain priests should not “be seen as a restoration of their faculties to celebrate the sacraments publicly, or certainly not in any way to disregard the grave emotional, physical and spiritual harm inflicted on innocent persons.”
“The well-being and healing of those who have experienced such trauma was and continues to be our constant preoccupation,” he said
During the luncheon after the Mass, Father Ryszard Biernat found himself face to face with Father Art Smith, a Diocese of Buffalo priest whom he alleges sexually abused him as a seminarian. Father Smith has also been accused of child sexual abuse by two individuals, including his own nephew.
Father Biernat related in a Facebook post that Father Smith told Father Biernat that he misunderstood his actions and "never wanted to hurt me — he just wanted to show me how much he loved me and how much he cared for me."
“16 years after being sexually assaulted I still deal with this guy who would not let go,” Father Biernat said on Facebook. “Sixteen years later I lay in bed and it feels like I am there again…”
Tucker told the Register, “Indeed, this was a very unfortunate occurrence and a matter that Bishop Scharfenberger is addressing personally.”
In a further twist, the location of the Mass and lunch was St. Leo the Great parish to which Bishop Malone reassigned Father Joseph Gatto, the former rector of Christ the King seminary, who stepped down in September 2018 following allegations of sexual misconduct against two lay adults who sought his pastoral help. Father Gatto, who was also with the bishop on the altar at the Mass, is now senior parochial vicar at the parish.
As the Register detailed in this report, Father Gatto also faces accusations of both abuse of power and sexual misconduct with seminarians, as well as involvement in setting up a “pipeline” that brought problematic seminary candidates to the U.S. from Colombia.
Some of Bishop Scharfenberger’s other decisions in the first few months on the job in Buffalo have been unpopular with Buffalo’s clerical establishment. The bishop took the decision to close Christ the King seminary, an institution that was bleeding $500,000 a year, was historically rife with sexual misconduct against seminarians, and was ground zero for forming the vast majority of the priests responsible for the Buffalo diocese’s sex abuse crisis.
The bishop is also preparing the diocese to file bankruptcy in the face of a massive wave of sex abuse lawsuits and the collapse of financial support as a result of the sex abuse scandal and coverups.