Buffalo Bishop Laments ‘Tragedy of Truly Epic Proportions’ as NY Child Victims Act Deadline Closes

‘As I have maintained since day one as bishop of the Diocese of Buffalo, it is of paramount importance to deal with these allegations forthrightly and to work to repair the enormous damage that has been done not only to the reputation of the Church here in Western New York, but, most importantly, to the lives of those affected,’ stated Bishop Michael Fisher.

The New York State Capitol is located in Albany.
The New York State Capitol is located in Albany. (photo: Felix Lipov/Shutterstock)

At the close of the “lookback” window created by New York’s Child Victims Act, Bishop Michael Fisher of Buffalo, New York, said he hopes the process will bring “closure and healing” to those abused by clerics.

The lookback window, which closed Aug. 14, allowed child sex-abuse victims to file lawsuits after their statute of limitations had ended.

“It is my hope and fervent prayer — and I know the hope of many of the faithful across our diocese — that we can move forward and ultimately bring a close to this very painful and sordid chapter, which in no way obscures the tremendous good accomplished each and every day by our Church and those who live faithfully the Gospel of Jesus Christ,” Bishop Fisher said Aug. 16.

“This is a tragedy of truly epic proportions, and as I have maintained since day one as bishop of the Diocese of Buffalo, it is of paramount importance to deal with these allegations forthrightly and to work to repair the enormous damage that has been done not only to the reputation of the Church here in Western New York, but, most importantly, to the lives of those affected,” he stated.

“The process now continues and will be a protracted one as we work through the legal requirements with the court-appointed creditors’ committee, which, of course, includes abuse survivors. We will also be working with the various insurance carriers of the diocese as we address the financial implications of these many claims.”

The lookback window, which began Aug. 13, 2019, was originally scheduled to close in August 2020, but was extended due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Four of New York’s dioceses — Rochester, Syracuse, Buffalo, and Rockville Centre — have declared bankruptcy amid the lawsuits brought under the Child Victims Act.

Although the New York Catholic Conference initially opposed the Child Victims Act, the conference eventually dropped its opposition. When the bill was amended to allow lawsuits by alleged victims of not only religious clergy, but also alleged victims of public employees such as public-school teachers, the conference stopped opposing it.

In May 2020 a state judge rejected a suit filed by the Diocese of Rockville Centre that claimed lawsuits under the Child Victims Act are barred by the due-process clause in the state constitution. It said the due-process clause in the state constitution “allows the legislature to revive formerly time-barred claims only where they could not have been raised earlier,” which it adds “is not so here.”

“The court finds the Child Victims Act is a reasonable response to remedy the injustice of past child sexual abuse,” Justice Steven Jaeger of the New York Supreme Court in Nassau County wrote in his decision. “Accordingly, it does not violate defendant diocese's right to due process under the New York State Constitution.”

A federal bankruptcy judge on March 31 ruled that 36 abuse lawsuits against Buffalo parishes and schools would remain on hold until Oct. 1, 2021, so as not to interfere with settlement payouts that were a part of the bankruptcy process.

The diocese and its former bishops are also facing a lawsuit from the state of New York.

In November 2020, the state’s attorney general, Letitia James, sued the diocese in the state supreme court; Bishop Emeritus Richard Malone, Auxiliary Bishop Emeritus Edward Grosz, and Buffalo’s then-apostolic administrator, Bishop Edward Scharfenberger of Albany, were all named in the lawsuit.

The state alleged that the diocese, Bishop Malone and Bishop Grosz all failed properly to investigate claims of clergy sex abuse, to monitor priests with credible abuse accusations, and to take action against priests credibly accused.

In addition, the state is seeking restitution from Bishop Malone and Bishop Grosz and a ban on their serving “a secular fiduciary role in a nonprofit or charitable organization” in the state.

A judge ruled in February that Bishop Malone and Bishop Grosz must pay their own legal fees, but may still have the right to seek reimbursement from the diocese’s insurers for their legal costs, the Buffalo News reported.

Oscar Wergeland, “Service in a German Village Church,” ca. 1880

This Sunday, I’ll Be Going to Church. Will You Join Me?

“The Sunday Eucharist is the foundation and confirmation of all Christian practice. For this reason the faithful are obliged to participate in the Eucharist on days of obligation, unless excused for a serious reason (for example, illness, the care of infants) or dispensed by their own pastor. Those who deliberately fail in this obligation commit a grave sin.” [CCC 2181]