Buffalo’s New Bishop Focuses on His Faith as He Addresses the Challenges That Await Him
Bishop-designate Michael Fisher will officially take the reins of the scandal-plagued diocese Jan. 15.
The Diocese of Buffalo is mired in scandals of sexual abuse and cover-up. It faces a lawsuit from the New York attorney general that asserts the diocese’s leadership, including former bishops, systematically failed the faithful, shielded priest-abusers from justice, and subverted the U.S. bishops’ Dallas Charter.
Pope Francis appointed Bishop Michael Fisher, an auxiliary for the Archdiocese of Washington, D.C., to take the reins in Buffalo. In this interview with Register staff writer Peter Jesserer Smith, Bishop-designate Fisher discusses his personal faith in Jesus Christ, his approach to the scandals he must clean up in the Buffalo Diocese, his relationship with disgraced ex-Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, and the need for prayer as he moves forward.
Bishop Fisher, can you tell me about your personal relationship with Jesus Christ and how that is going to inform your evangelical priorities coming into the Diocese of Buffalo?
It’s everything. It’s everything. Obviously, we have to be men of prayer. I think our people can forgive us for a lot of things, but if they see that we’re not genuine in our relationship with the Lord, that’s not good. I’ve always had, from the time I was a young boy, certainly a conversation with God in my heart and in my soul. And I think that’s what brought me to the priesthood, even at a time when I didn’t think I was called to be a priest, giving me that confidence I needed. So my relationship with the Lord is essential. I mean, why am I doing this, if I’m not in tune with the Lord and his Holy Spirit?
I’ve been asked about the overwhelming issues that I’m confronted with in terms of the Church in Buffalo. But what I’ve seen so far, and with the warmth that has been expressed, is the great faith of the people in western New York. And I think that’s 99% of it all, in terms of dealing with what we need to deal with.
What has prepared you to carry out this mission you’ve been entrusted with?
To begin with: my parents. I had great, wonderful, loving parents. My parents are deceased at the moment, but I grew up in an ecumenical house. My father was sort of what we’d call a “hard-shell Baptist,” and my mother was the cradle Irish Catholic. Later on, my father converted to the faith, but a large segment of my family are good Christian people.
I learned an appreciation and love of the Scriptures from my grandmother. She had a little bit of Mennonite in her, and every Sunday we’d go over to visit. And she'd be in the corner reading us Bible stories, so it gave us a love of the Scriptures that way. Then, of course, my mother being a Catholic, we went to Mass every Sunday. But we were just a very loving family, and we weren't perfect. … I think that foundation of family, to me, is essential to being a good priest. And I think you build on that as a bishop, because then your family becomes even wider and more responsible to you.
Moving forward, certainly in terms of my work as a pastor for half of my priesthood, in various parishes, was very fulfilling and rich and full of different kinds of experiences, too, from the country to the city to suburbia. And then my work with the apostolates, the charities, the schools, and then, ultimately, with the clergy, I think has given me more of a bird’s-eye view of the Church; and, hopefully, I can bring that experience with me.
Turning now to the scandal in the Diocese of Buffalo: The New York state attorney general has filed a lawsuit against the diocese that implicates former Church leaders, including Bishop Richard Malone and Auxiliary Bishop Ed Grosz, in wrongdoing. It alleges a systemic pattern of deception, fraud, cover-up and deliberate failures to investigate crimes and to punish the abusers of children and adults. What are your impressions of this scandal in Buffalo, and how are you going to approach this?
At the moment, I’m not really in a position to discuss the specifics of the suit. I’m certainly aware of it and what the attorney general has detailed for the basis of this suit. I know it’s an ongoing legal matter. So I guess I can’t comment on the specifics of that.
What I can say, though, is that we can’t do things the way we used to. We have to be open; we have to be transparent and accountable. I know that there are already policies and protocols in place, and those need to be followed.
I also feel we need to be reviewing those policies and procedures. But, ultimately, it’s also looking out for the people who have been harmed. We’ve got to reach out to the victims and the survivors, to look out for their well-being. What do they need to help them move forward? No priest that has abused a child should be in ministry. And I think if we follow what we should be doing, then hopefully we can move forward in a way that we’re protecting our children and our vulnerable adults. That’s essential if we’re going to have any kind of accountability and trust with our people.
Speaking of accountability and transparency, what are some of the ways you’re going to try to go about establishing that in the Diocese of Buffalo? One of the key complaints in the attorney general’s report is that there are policies and procedures in place, but the chancery personnel have failed to fulfill them or follow through with them.
The credibility of our Church and the bishops, those who have been entrusted with leading and shepherding the faith: It depends on that trust that our people have in us. So we need to be transparent. We need to be accountable for our decisions. And we need to be clear in not only the procedures, the protocols and the policies, but how we carry them out: who’s responsible for that. Also, I think a lot of times, even in our chanceries and our pastoral centers, we can be in these little silos. We need to be knowing what each other is doing. We need to be working together as a team. We constantly need to be evaluating the way we do things. So, I guess that comes out of my administrative background: You always evaluate what you’re doing and try to do it better. I was a Boy Scout, and they always said, “Leave your campsite better than you left it.”
You’re right. They called it “Leave no trace.” I am an Eagle Scout.
Same here! So, I really feel that if I’m going to be genuine in what I say, and people can hopefully believe what I had to say, I have to back that up with our actions. But I can’t do it alone. I’ve got to get, certainly, the input, cooperation and good communication between the laity of the diocese and the priests. We’ve got to involve the laity. They’ve got to be an essential part of decision-making as well as planning and dreaming. As well as our priests: They’re where the tire hits the road as pastors. And so we need to give them the support they need to help them, because they’re under a lot of pressure as pastors.
With regards to clergy, it has been very established that clergy who abuse children should not be in ministry whatsoever. But do you believe that any cleric who sexualizes a relationship with a subordinate or a pastoral relationship of any nature with an adult is fit to remain in ministry?
That’s a good question. We’re dealing with those kinds of situations. I think anytime there is sexual harassment involved that needs to be reported. It needs to be encouraged to be reported. And in that case, I think we would have to follow again our procedures of consultation. And we also need to look at the rights of the priest, too. There are also issues where you have mutual boundary crossing. Those are the more difficult ones, though. I certainly feel it would depend on that situation. But I think any time that happens, where we’re looking at a priest who is moving away from his promises and his vows to serve his people, there is also that power and the authority. He’s the one that needs to set the boundaries and the control there, when it comes to relationships and that with his parishioners. I think it would be very difficult to keep him there.
Now whether you take him fully out of ministry, I don’t know, but what we need more of is — again, we have boards for our child protection, but I think we also need those boards to help us for the adult situations, so it’s not just one person making a decision, but we look for the good of the parish: What is going to protect that parish and the people of that parish should be the No. 1 priority there.
There can be no question about our zero tolerance of any criminal act of sexual abuse toward a child by a priest, lay employee, volunteer or bishop in the Diocese of Buffalo. Sexual harassment towards an adult will also not be tolerated, and the diocese has defined clear policies and protocols that detail what constitutes sexual harassment, as well as inappropriate boundary issues. Any person who violates these policies will not continue in ministry or employment.
Certainly, if an allegation is of a criminal nature, we will defer to law enforcement authorities and cooperate fully in the investigation and prosecution of the person responsible, if that is the result, to the full extent of the law. Fundamentally, bishops, priests, deacons, our lay leaders — and all who are part of the diocese’s mission — must reveal Christ and demonstrate the values and behaviors that help to lead others toward holiness. Anything less than this is in violation of our mission and purpose and the very nature of who we are as a faith community and as disciples of Jesus Christ.
Bishop Fisher, I wanted to give you an opportunity to address an issue some people have raised. Because of your former association with ex-Cardinal McCarrick, they question whether you are the right man for Buffalo.
Well, I was a priest of the [Washington, D.C.,] Archdiocese. Most of the time that the former Cardinal McCarrick was here in Washington, I was a pastor out in the parish, working hard and focused on that. I guess it was about a year before he retired, he asked me to become the vicar for the apostolates. Again, it was more a building on what I was doing as a pastor, with more of a kind of higher bird’s-eye level, looking down on all of the charities and the schools. I was running all over the place. But when he asked me to do that, he was always very respectful of me.
In terms of all of his lifestyle and the gossip, I learned about that at the same time everybody else did. I was shocked and horrified by it, because my experience of the former Cardinal McCarrick was he was all over the place. You kind of ran in his wake. He was overseas; he was here. When he asked me to be the vicar, I asked him what a vicar does, and he told me I’ll be working with Kevin Farrell, who was the auxiliary bishop and vicar for administration. He kind of ran the archdiocese, and it gave McCarrick the ability to go around and do the things he did.
So I was focused on the apostolates and my work there, and after a year, [McCarrick] retired.
Thank you for addressing that. So you’re coming into a diocese with a great need of healing. For a long time, survivors of abuse and also whistleblowers and supporters have felt locked out of the conversation about the Church’s reform and even the life of the Church itself as a result of all this. Are you going to form a plan to bring them all into the full life of the Church and the conversation about the reform of the diocese’s governance, as well as the planning and execution of healing initiatives so we can truly walk together as a Church?
Absolutely. How that will take form, I think we will need to do a lot of consultation and collaboration. I feel an essential part of my ministry, whether it’s in Buffalo or anywhere, as a bishop now, is to be a healer and, hopefully, if I’m able, to engage in that healing process to be of help to those victims and survivors of that abuse. I’ve only been a bishop for two years, as an auxiliary, and a lot of that has been taken up three times a year with a retreat we give to survivors and victims. I’ve experienced the pain they bring. Most of their pain is that they were not heard; they were not heard by the Church leadership and the bishops. That’s why I wanted to be engaged in those retreats, so it would hopefully be a step forward in giving them access to the bishop. Some of them wanted to; others didn’t. We have to respect that. But I see that would be an essential part of the healing process, and I would meet with anybody that wanted to talk to me, in terms of any abuse they’ve experienced.
Those retreats were not just clergy abuse. It’s amazing how much pain is experienced by abuse, and we need to be giving resources and vehicles to people who have experienced this. They’re our people, our family, and we can’t leave them behind. They have to be with us. Again, how that would be incorporated into the structure of the renewal, they need to be part of the renewal.
Lastly, what can Catholics provide you right now to help you complete your mission in faithfulness and strict obedience to Jesus Christ?
Prayer: I mean, that has to be No. 1. We have to begin everything with prayer. And I don’t mean that in a simple way. I think prayer is at the root of listening and our relationship with Christ. As we began: He has to be the center of all that we’re doing; to let that spirit of God animate us. So I look forward to being prayed over and praying with the people. I’m praying with them now.
But also for people to share the joys of their faith with me. I know there is a deep faith up there in Buffalo and in its people. They have a long, wonderful history of their Church there and their communities. I want to hear about that. That’s the good news, and that’s what I look forward to: rejoicing in that. That’s what’s going to energize and animate me even on the days where there are some difficult things we’ll be doing.