BUFFALO, N.Y. — Snowfall covers the upstate New York countryside as Bishop Edward Scharfenberger makes his newest weekly commute as a bishop, 300 miles each way from Albany to Buffalo via Amtrak.
Buffalo and the surrounding cities and towns of western New York see consistently some of the heaviest snowfalls in the U.S., but the area has been weighed down for the last year, as past and present clergy-abuse scandals called into question the leadership of Bishop Richard Malone, who resigned on Wednesday.
Discussing his appointment as temporary caretaker of the Buffalo diocese, Bishop Scharfenberger stressed that he embraces the pastoral challenges of caring for western New York state’s Catholics, despite the obvious challenges that are present.
First and foremost, what would you like to tell Catholics of western New York who feel like this leadership change in Buffalo has long been overdue?
Well, it’s happening now. I’m very happy to serve them with all that God has given me, No. 1. So I’m there. I’m there to walk with them and take the next steps forward that will help us to see where the Lord is leading us. Obviously, I am very aware of the pain and the despondency and many of the anxieties, such as: What does the future hold? Or for that matter, even: What does the past hold? Because there is a lot of concern, it may be even fear, and panic even, about what’s in the records and what yet remains to be revealed, to come into the light. But I have said, and I will continue to say, that we have nothing to fear from the truth. And, of course, the truth is something that is not always easy to come by overnight.
We have to pray that the Holy Spirit will shed light on all that we look at and that we, first of all, get the facts — look at them as clearly as we can. Then we decide: What are they telling us? And then: What are we going to do in response? Are there systems or structures or ways of operating that need to be changed so that the errors of the past are not repeated?
And then the first thing, obviously, is: How do we begin or continue the healing process of those that are wounded? How do we do that, because that has to be done very personally. So I just want to offer them that. The way we’re going to do this is not only going to be by institutional change, but also, really, by spiritual renewal — and that, ultimately, it’s going to be a healing of hearts and souls that will bring us closer together to the Lord and give us the courage to face those difficult administrative and structural changes that are inevitable.
You’ve been dealing with the reality of sexual-abuse allegations in your own diocese. And you’ve been very proactive about it. Can you tell us what lessons you’ve learned recently about how to address the issue better — and the role especially you see laypeople playing?
You hit the nail right on the head: that everybody has a role here. And what we have to do is pray for “What can I do personally?”
Mother Teresa, when she first responded to [her] mission to Calcutta, and she was just faced with these teeming masses of people with poverty and all sorts of oppression, was asked, “How are you going to address all of these needs?” And you know, she said, “One person at a time.” She had a great belief in the relational approach, that God saves us, through us, one by one. So the major thing that I would say is that we are all of us, to some extent, affected by this.
The message that I would have is: Just open your heart to listen. Let’s listen to one another — and to say no one should be afraid to step forward and to speak of the burden they’re carrying.
It really is very much a relational thing. People can’t relate to an institution, even if it has a cross on top of it. It’s tough, you know. Nobody’s going to come to the church door and knock, as beautiful as it may be. People want a human heart with ears that will listen to them, that they can look in the face, and so we have to become more confident that we can do this. Friends can do this for one another.
As you noted, ordinarily, apostolic administrators do not make changes to a diocese until a new bishop is made, unless there are urgent matters. What would you say are the urgent matters in Buffalo that you think you might have to deal with now?
Obviously, it’s a judgment call that I am going to ultimately have to make: what is urgent and what is not. As you know, in the press conference on Wednesday, some things were brought to my attention that were felt to be urgencies by those that asked the question. And I did not deny those urgencies, but I did not necessarily say I’m going to make a decision now on this.
So, you know, one of the urgencies was: what about the role of the auxiliary bishop, Bishop Ed Grosz; whether he was involved in covering up. There have been some allegations along those lines. Should that be a priority? In the minds of some, yes. Some people named other members of Bishop Malone’s team or the diocesan team. The urgency may come from reports that I’m not even aware of at this point. So that’s one area that I’m going to have to look at, and I’ll have to make some prudential decisions as to how to prioritize that.
Now, the second area, of course, that you’d hear about urgency is: You’d hear the word “cover-up” a lot. What’s in those records, and who should see those records, and how should they be released? So that’s another area I’m going to have to take a look at. Will I ask, for example, as I did in Albany, for the district attorney, or the district attorneys of the counties, to come in and look at certain diocesan records?
So here’s the question: how best to create a system, or at least a modus operandi, whereby one can say confidently that “there are no hidden corners.” We’re not going to tolerate any holding back of information that certainly that legal authorities are entitled, such as criminal behavior, and some public information, but they’re not necessarily the same. We have to find some way of a credible and honest way of saying: Okay, we’re going to create policies and procedures.
The other thing, too, is we have an ongoing investigation by the attorney general of New York state. And every diocese has been digitalizing and producing their records and have been turning them over, covering the last 50 years, to the attorney general. So a lot of those records are already in the possession of the attorney general. And any sort of investigation or disclosure that I might make has to be respectful of the impact that that might have on that investigation. And I think there’s also two other subpoenas that the Diocese of Buffalo has received, both from federal and state law enforcement.
So whatever I would do, I would have to be sure that I’m observing the civil and the canon law on these things. But that having been said, I certainly am going to do everything I can to dispel any concerns that there is any sort of deliberate withholding of vital information.
As you know, the Register ran a three-part series examining Christ the King Seminary’s role in recent and historical allegations of sexual misconduct and sexual abuse in the diocese. What course of action do you believe you’ll take with regard to the seminary?
I’m operating on what I know now, and I will know more within the weeks ahead. And what I do know now, I think this is factually accurate; there is a new rector. That I know. I also understand that the atmosphere in the seminary is considerably improved among the seminarians themselves, from what I understand. I do know that there’s a great desire that there’ll be contact with the spiritual father of the diocese, which is myself now. So I will make a point of spending time with the faculty and with the seminarians, to get a feel of how they’re doing. That would be my first concern: How are things actually going now in the seminary, in terms of their formation and their spiritual and academic development? That’s No. 1. And then, No. 2, educating myself about what historically has happened; and I will certainly look at your report.
So I will do the best I can to make sure I’m aware of that history and who has been affected by it, to see if we can do some healing there.
Now, there is another issue, of course, that may come up. If there is a Chapter 11 bankruptcy filed, which is likely, I think, from what I’m hearing, then, of course, the property that the seminary sits on, is, I think, rather prime real estate.
I don’t want to tip off any anxieties here. The seminary’s future, I hope, would be secure, but its actual location may or may not be. I don’t know that, but I don’t know that that decision would fall to me or the next bishop.
Do you plan on meeting with the people that have been involved in whistleblowing?
Oh, of course.
I have to also be prudent not to signal that this specific individual is more entitled to be heard than somebody else. There may actually be other people who did not come forward; and, again, I fully respect the courage that it takes for people to come forward publicly. But there may be others who have not that may want to. And I want to open the door to everyone who has something that they believe is important to say to be able to do that. So my approach will be: “Sure, my door is open.” And anybody, whether they’ve already come forward, and have been even public, or whether they have not, to, by all means, call me. And I will meet with you.
So, therefore, I will be [meeting] with everybody who wants to, but I’ll be careful about what type of invitations I extend, if for no other reason because my time is limited. I don’t want to signal that I’m preferring some. It’s sort of like, I have siblings. I’m the oldest of five, and, a lot of times, we communicate in a sort of a group text, and I don’t want to signal that I favor one of my brothers or sisters over another. So that’s where I’ll be prudent here.
Your train route between Albany and Buffalo does retrace the path trod in New York by some of our Jesuit and Native American martyrs, holy men and women. What’s your final reflection on how you see your task in Buffalo, mindful of this kind of cloud of witnesses watching you? You’ve mentioned, first and foremost, that you’re a disciple of Jesus. With all this in mind, how do you plan to put this following of Jesus Christ, and this legacy of holiness that we do have right here in our own soil, back into the heart of the Church’s life in the Diocese of Buffalo?
Beautiful, beautiful. Well said. Well, I’ll tell you one thing: I’m already becoming aware of the goodness of the people in Buffalo and their history as really good Catholics: multiethnic communities of different backgrounds: Polish, Italian, Latino, Irish, Germans and Native Americans, they’ve all brought their richness to that soil, as well. So the richness: The seeds have been planted; they need to be watered.
Jesus is very, very generous. We want to unlock the stores of grace. And this may sound a little bit sappy or poetic, but, you know, even when I see this snowfall — and snow can do a lot of damage — you look at every snowfall, and every one is different, you know; no two snowflakes are alike. And I think that’s the way grace is: No two graces are alike. There is an abundance of grace.
And you referenced the North American martyrs, and their story is very close to my own vocation story, because I wanted to be an airline pilot. And I remember my dad was taking the family at times to places like the Auriesville shrine and to Maryknoll. And I remember being captivated by the adventuresome nature of these first martyrs; that they actually traveled outside the comfort of their own countries, and, as missionaries, they came here. And I thought that was very, very adventurous. I started wondering. I had wanted to be an airline pilot because I wanted to see the world and do things like that, and I said, “It’s just as adventurous being a missionary, but it takes a little more sacrifice because you could get killed. Where do they get this courage from?” And that’s what drew me to see how God draws us out of our comfort zone and leads us to places that might be a little dangerous, scary, frightening and exciting, but gives us this grace to do what we just can’t do on our own. And then you begin to start realizing that the courage comes not from your education, although that’s important, or even in your natural abilities, but it really comes from God.
So the message, I think, is very powerful: that we can get through this, because God is with us. And if you believe in Jesus as your personal Savior, if you believe his presence, you can trust the Holy Spirit that nothing is impossible with God. And we’re in the salvation business. I mean, there’s nobody — in my view, at least, maybe others can help — but the Catholic Church is uniquely positioned to be able to do this healing. And even though a lot of this damage and this sin was perpetrated and implemented within the Church and within our own family, our family has to also be that healing family. And we’re uniquely missioned to do that. So if we trust in the Lord, it will happen.
Peter Jesserer Smith is a Register staff writer.
This interview has been edited for length.