BUFFALO, N.Y. — Efforts to recover from clergy sex abuse scandals in Buffalo require listing to victims and others affected by the diocese’s handling of abuse, the apostolic administrator of the Buffalo diocese Bishop Edward Scharfenberger has said.
“I know there’s a lot of pain. I know that pain sometimes presents itself first as anger,” Bishop Scharfenberger said in opening remarks at a Dec. 7 symposium at Canisius College in Buffalo.
“We can’t deny the fact that there is a lot of anger and frustration. Maybe in our personal lives but also in those who expect much of us as leaders to be able to help them find a way out of the darkness that they have experienced,” he continued.
“The darkness of fear is absolutely chilling,” he said. “Remember, Jesus tells us that fear is useless. It’s faith that counts. The more we trust in him, that he’s with us…. He accompanies us wherever we go.”
“We can do this together,” he said, adding that Jesus Christ is the “ultimate healer.”
“People are not giving up,” he said. “And there are reasons for hope too, because God is with us, and we’re going to get through this.
Bishop Scharfenberger became apostolic administrator of the diocese December 4, following Pope Francis’ acceptance of the early resignation of 73-year-old Bishop Richard J. Malone of Buffalo, who has faced a year of controversy over his handling of sexual abuse by clergy.
In November 2018, a former Buffalo chancery employee leaked confidential diocesan documents related to the handling of claims of clerical sexual abuse. The documents were widely reported to suggest Malone had covered-up some claims of sexual abuse, an allegation the bishop denied.
Six months later, in April 2019, Bishop Malone apologized for his handling of some cases in the diocese, and said he would work to restore trust. The bishop particularly apologized for his 2015 support of Father Art Smith, a priest who had faced repeated allegations of abuse and misconduct with minors.
That was the background for the Dec. 7 symposium, held by the Movement to Restore Trust. The group’s organizing committee is comprised mostly of business and non-profit Catholic leaders.
“The biggest thing that we need is that trust,” Michael Whalen, a survivor of clergy sex abuse who advocates on behalf of victims, said at the symposium, the NBC affiliate WGRZ reports.
Whalen made suggestions for the bishop administering the diocese.
“How do we go about getting that trust back? I think by him making big changes in the diocese, getting rid of the old garb, people who've been there decades, who knew about the abuse, and didn't do anything about it,” he said.
The bishop praised Whalen’s comments, Scharfenberger said to reporters, according to audio published by the Buffalo AM radio station WBEN.
“His heart is so full of a desire to help, and to help us heal,” Scharfenberger said. “I thanked him, because I believe that our victim-survivors are an essential part of our mission. They’re our family. Their experience and the experience of every one of us is very, very valuable.”
“We have to be able to feel that we have a safe space, that we can come together and talk about that and learn from one another, and hear our stories and share our pain, and our vision,” said the bishop.
For Bishop Scharfenberger, who will serve as both Bishop of Albany and apostolic administrator pending further decisions by the Vatican, the restoration of trust is ultimately a matter of proving oneself trustworthy and hoping that this is recognized. Though he thought the good faith displayed at the symposium was “heartwarming,” he compared it to a honeymoon period. Upcoming decisions might not be popular.
“I just want everybody to know that whatever I do, I will do with a spirit of justice and charity and openness and listening,” he said. “I don’t want to make any decision that does not take into account and does not show respect for all of those that these decisions affect.”
Whalen, the survivor of sexual abuse, has advocated for the release of the diocese’s confidential files.
The bishop pledged transparency but also said clarity was needed in the release of records which might not give the full context or accurate knowledge.
“I want to be transparent. I want everybody to know what they have a right to know but I want to do it in a way that is clearly understood,” he said.
The possible financial bankruptcy of the diocese was a topic at the symposium. University at Buffalo Law School Vice Dean Todd Brown said if the diocese filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy it would not liquidate, but rather reorganize.
The Movement to Restore Trust’s organizing committee members include John Hurley, the lay president of Canisius College, a Jesuit school in Buffalo.
Hurley said bankruptcy would represent “the fairest option” because court cases would be done all together. He said “everyone will be treated equitably and all at the same time, and it won't be who has the better lawyer, or who can get the first trial.”
In comments to reporters, Bishop Scharfenberger said there are many different sides to the arguments for and against bankruptcy. He stressed the need to make the right decision and the need to help people to know why he made that decision.
“It has to be done with deliberation,” he said.
“Ultimately this is a spiritual crisis… People did unholy bad things, evil things, and the only way to eradicate evil is by returning to holiness and to return to God, and to live according to the way our faith teaches us to live,” the bishop continued.
“It’s in God’s time when that happens. God has been trying to restore trust with the human race since the Fall of Adam and Eve,” he said. “We keep turning away. And God keeps coming back.”