Catholics and the Coronavirus

“Everything we do before a pandemic will seem alarmist. Everything we do after will seem inadequate.” — Michael Leavitt, Former Secretary of Health and Human Services

“There is no place for selfishness and no place for fear! Do not be afraid, then, when love makes demands. Do no be afraid when love requires sacrifice.” — Saint John Paul II

Although I had intended to retreat from the Internet during this time of corona, I have been asked and now feel compelled to address the subject from a Catholic perspective. I am not a moral, theological or medical authority by any means, but I have reflected and prayed about these issues and humbly present the following for your consideration.

On the evening of Sunday, March 15th, the Diocese of Buffalo announced that there would be “no regularly scheduled public Masses in the Diocese of Buffalo until further notice due to an abundance of caution and growing concerns about the spread of the novel coronavirus.” On the Friday previous, Bishop Scharfenberger announced that “all Catholic faithful are dispensed from the obligation to attend Sunday Mass and Holy Days of Obligation.” That dispensation will remain in effect until public Masses can once again take place within our diocese. In the meantime, priests will offer private Masses every day for scheduled intentions.

The Diocese of Buffalo is just one of many dioceses that have made the difficult decision to cancel all public Masses to prevent the spread of the coronavirus: Anchorage and Atlanta, Baltimore and Boston, Denver and Detroit, Chicago and Cincinnati, Hartford and Houston, Los Angeles and Louisville, Milwaukee and Mobile, Oklahoma and Omaha, Philadelphia and Portland, and all the saints… Anthony, Francis, Louis and Paul. The list is growing by the day.

Over the past few days, I have heard reactions from Catholics which genuinely surprised and even shocked me. People have criticized Bishop Scharfenberger (and other bishops) for “caving to secular authorities” and not “standing their ground.” For “not trusting enough in God” and allowing Satan to “rejoice.” A few people have even gone so far as to suggest that some Catholics will fall away from the faith and that the bishops are facilitating and permitting this “outrage.” Others have said that the bishop and Church leaders are “denying us Jesus.”

Good heavens. I am certainly not one to shy away from criticizing bishops, but I do not agree with these sentiments at all.

Catholicism has long celebrated the relationship between faith and reason. We believe that there is not conflict but compatibility between the two. Science – a particular form of reasoning – can exist in harmony with faith. As the Catechism reminds us, science “can never conflict with faith, because the things of the world and the things of faith derive from the same God” (159).

In the case of the coronavirus, we are relying on medical science to keep us informed and protected. The World Health Organization (WHO) has determined that the coronavirus is a pandemic: “an outbreak occurring over a wide geographic area and affecting an exceptionally high proportion of the population.” The Center for Disease Control (CDC) has found that the coronavirus is spreading primarily through person-to-person contact. Importantly, they have also determined that the virus is spreading “easily” because of community spread, which is the spread of a contagious disease within a community. Dr. Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease and one of our country’s leading experts on infectious disease, recently said: “Whenever you have an outbreak [where] you can start seeing community spread, [this] means by definition that you don’t know what the index case is. When you have enough of that, then it becomes a situation where you’re not going to be able to effectively and efficiently contain it.” He has urged all US citizens to practice social distancing to prevent a “potentially catastrophic rise in infections.” 

Bishop Scharfenberger and other US (and international) bishops are not “caving to Caesar” or “letting Satan win.” They are heeding the counsel of medical scientists. They are making a reason-based decision about our religious practices for the time being. I can only imagine that this was a very difficult decision for Bishop Scharfenberger and his episcopal counterparts.

Ceasing public Masses is a dramatic step, but it is not without precedent. During the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic, St. Louis was one of the ten largest American cities. Dr. Max Starkloff was St. Louis’ Health Commissioner at the time and he took swift, aggressive action to combat the spread of the disease. For starters, he forbid public gatherings of more than twenty people, which sounds familiar to our 2020 ears. His decision to close all churches (along with every other public gathering place) was initially resisted by the Archbishop, but eventually the prelate relented and suspended the weekly obligation for Catholics. These efforts from Dr. Starkloff are now known as social distancing. Thanks to his bold actions, St. Louis had one of the lowest death rates among large cities in America. In contrast, Philadelphia’s Health Commissioner, who disregarded the advice of infectious disease experts, ended up with bodies stacked up outside of overflowing morgues and a death rate nearly twice as high as St. Louis’.

dr. max
Dr. Max C. Starkloff, c. 1900

Although the coronavirus has been likened to a plague, it is important to note that actual plague is “a vector-borne infectious disease caused by bacteria.” The most infamous form of plague – bubonic – is the type of plague responsible for the 14th century’s Black Death, which killed at least 100 million people in Europe and Asia. The people of that time desperately tried to contain the disease that was ravaging their communities, cities and countries. In fact, it is from the people of this time that we get the word “quarantine.” In an effort to stem the plague’s tide, ships arriving from infected ports were required to drop anchor away from shore and wait 40 days before they were allowed to disembark. This practice became known as “quarantine” from the Italian words for 40 days: quaranta giorni.

The Black Death also brings us a beautiful story of perhaps the earliest social distancing of them all: the brave little village of Eyam, England. As this article explains, “During the bubonic plague outbreak of 1665-6, the inhabitants of Eyam quarantined themselves, in a famous act of self-sacrifice, to prevent the spread of the plague. By the end of the outbreak, more than a quarter of the village’s population of almost 1,000 were dead. The plague, however, was contained.” (One of my favorite books is A Parcel of Patterns about the heroic people of Eyam, who received the plague in a parcel of flea-infested fabrics.)

eyam's well

Medical science couldn’t assist them at the time. Medieval doctors tried to help people avoid the disease, but since its origin was unknown, they were at a great disadvantage. Once infected, a person might be treated with bloodletting or given a potion, but there was little anyone could do to actually cure the sick. So the people of Eyam made a collective sacrifice – they would distance themselves in order to protect the surrounding area, which remained plague-free. Many of Eyam’s villagers died so that their neighbors might live.

Today we are being asked to make a collective sacrifice in order to protect others. However, social distancing in 2020 demands nowhere near the sacrifices of 1665. Our lives will be disrupted but are much less likely to be lost especially if we practice social distancing conscientiously and consistently.

Here in Buffalo, most public gathering places are closed: schools, libraries, restaurants, movie theaters, etc. And yes, churches.

We are being asked to sacrifice the Sacrifice of the Mass.

source and summit

The Eucharist is the source and summit of our lives as Catholics. It is the celebration and commemoration of and our communion in the paschal mystery of Christ. The cessation of public Masses is a tremendous blow to our spiritual lives especially during the season of Lent when many people try to attend daily Mass as often as possible.

The people of Eyam sacrificed their physical lives for others, but we are only being asked to sacrifice part of our spiritual lives for a time. Yes, it is the greatest part of our spiritual life, but that just makes the sacrifice even more meaningful.

This is an act of charity on our part as well as of obedience to both spiritual and civil authorities. Community spread is a real threat to vulnerable people in our community. Just yesterday Roswell Park Comprehensive Cancer Center issued a press release regarding two of their patients who contracted the coronavirus “through community spread.” My heart breaks for these people, who are now battling not only cancer but also COVID-19! We must do all we can to prevent any further spread throughout our community. It is especially important to note that many regular Mass goers (especially daily attendees) are in the demographic that is considered most vulnerable to this virus: older and elderly folks. Also, let’s remember that the majority of our priests (locally and nationally) are in that vulnerable category as well.

Bishop CR

Two years ago, the Diocese of Buffalo faced a “crisis” of its own making. It failed horribly in its response.

Today, the Diocese of Buffalo is facing a crisis of an entirely different nature. Their response has been more than adequate and even admirable. Of particular note is the fact that they are prioritizing people over money, which was not the case two years ago.

No Masses means no collection baskets and no offertory. Some folks may donate electronically, but a significant source of regular income will disappear across the diocese.

If the Diocese of Buffalo is prioritizing people over money, there must be a pretty major reason… a global pandemic, perhaps?

For someone who has spent the last two years in a state of near-constant criticism and cynicism toward her diocese, it’s refreshing to have this opportunity to commend rather than critique. The Diocese of Buffalo – like its counterparts throughout the country – is doing its best to navigate this turbulent time. For decades, our Diocese and the Church as a whole allowed and enabled the spread of abuse like a cancer, or indeed, a virus. I dearly wish that they had reacted to the virus of abuse the way they are responding to the coronavirus! But perhaps they are slowly learning and this global pandemic can reinforce the important lesson of people over profit.*

Dear friends, this is a time for unity and charity. While we mourn the loss of the Mass, let us unite ourselves with so many Catholics around the world for whom Mass every Sunday – let alone daily! – is a distant dream. Let us remember the many Catholics throughout history who have had to live without the Eucharist.

Let us recall that many survivors of clerical sexual abuse are unable to practice their faith or receive the sacraments because of PTSD and abuse-related trauma. Going into a church can be extremely triggering as would be any type of interaction with a priest. Some Catholic survivors have requested and received dispensations from Mass attendance because such attendance would jeopardize their health and healing. Stephanie McIntyre, nationally recognized survivor and advocate, recently posted these powerful words: “Are you a Catholic who is outraged about Masses being cancelled due to COVID-19 restrictions? Welcome to the world of clergy abuse victims and their families. Most of us lost the luxury of being able to go to Mass or any church a long time ago.” Let us offer up our sacrifice on their behalf and may it remind us that that Mass is a “luxury” for many, many people.

Let us unite our sacrifice with those of military men and women throughout the world, who often go long periods of time without the sacraments. A US Marine named Joe Wagner recently posted this poignant reflection:

“Both times I was deployed I had to go a stretch of at least three months without seeing a priest at all and had mostly sporadic sacramental access apart from that. Even when we had a chaplain on base, there was still nothing you could call parish life, no young adult community, small groups, or those other things American Catholics are going to start missing soon. I won’t say it didn’t suck, and I don’t have any special hacks to make it easy for you. But I can give you my assurance that Mass or no Mass, God will still be with you, and that regardless of liturgical season, it will be another Easter when we do finally get to go back.”

In another space, Joe shared that “sacramental exile on deployment was a formative experience in my spiritual life that motivated me, when I got home, to leap at the sacramental and communal parts of Catholic life even more than before.”

To leap at the Sacraments! Isn’t that a beautiful image?

What if we saw this current sacramental fast as an opportunity to deepen our love for the sacraments and for our Eucharistic Lord? How wonderful it would be for us to develop a spiritual hunger for the Eucharist such as we may never have experienced!

Let us also remember that our ability to attend Mass and receive the Eucharist is a PRIVILEGE. It is a privilege that many of us – myself included – may have taken for granted because we live in a country where daily Mass is expected and assumed.

Another privilege we have is that for most of us, this period of social distancing and isolating will take place in the comfort of our homes with ample sustenance, comfort and entertainment available to us. We even have a previously unheard of technological opportunity to participate in the life of the Church through livestreamed Masses, prayer apps (click here for a great list of available ones), and social media-based faith support. Let’s take advantage of what is available to us while we await a return to our normal spiritual routines. This tweet from a lady named Trish Lewis** gives us a positive way to look at the situation: “We are fighting something invisible – the virus germs – but invisible things are also on our side: faith, hope and love… and WiFi.”

Coloring Hand lettering Faith, hope and love with cross and leaves.

Let us keep the faith, Catholic friends. It will be different and difficult, sobering and sad. But aren’t the hardest sacrifices so often the most life-changing and meaningful? May this period of trial strengthen our faith and help us to appreciate it all the more!

Let us have hope… That our efforts at social distancing and isolating will stem the tide of this virus and flatten the curve we’re hearing so much about these days. That the most vulnerable members of our communities will be spared an infection that could seriously jeopardize their health and possibly cost them their lives.

Let us practice charity. The kind of charity that the people of Eyam courageously put into practice. May our love for our Eucharistic Lord – and our desire for Him – inspire us to love those around us by observing the protocols put in place by civil and church authorities. Let us offer up this sacrifice out of love and for the sake of those who are fighting this virus in any capacity.

And let us pray… not at Mass as we wish we could, but in our homes and in our hearts. Let us remember that God is always with us and that prayer is possible no matter where we are. Let us pray for each other, for those who are sick, for medical personnel and emergency responders, for priests saying solitary Masses and administering last rites, for essential items suppliers and drivers, for grocery store staff, for researchers, for government and church officials, for people facing financial struggles because of this pandemic, and for the homeless and hungry.

This would be a great time to explore or rediscover the Liturgy of the Hours, also known as the Divine Office, which is the daily prayer of the Church that all priests and religious pray every day. You can find Divine Office apps here or check out this website. The Rosary is another powerful prayer we can turn to at this difficult time. It is the prayer Our Lady herself has asked us to pray! Many parishes are offering Eucharistic Adoration at specific times (call your parish to inquire and to encourage this practice if it’s not available) or at least opening the church for socially-distanced prayer. Our Lord will be waiting in the tabernacle for you!

We are not caving or falling away or lacking trust. If anything, this challenging situation is an opportunity to increase our trust in God! We can emerge from this crisis stronger and holier.

We can do it… with God’s help and grace and mercy.

Help comes

 

Source and Summit graphic via the Diocese of Fort Worth

*A reader named Laura Hansen Schleicher made an excellent point on the money/people dichotomy:  “I hope the pastors and priests feel the absence of their parishioners monetarily and physically. I hope it reminds them of the value they hold and that the church is PEOPLE. And I hope that leads them to making changes with the way they handle and prioritize (or don’t) victims. It would be a strange thing if this is what initiated that change, but I have hope. Leave it to God to work that way.” Thank you, Laura, for this wonderful insight.

** Trish Lewis lost her daughter, Natalie, under tragic circumstances that may be recalled by Buffalo residents. If anyone can show us how to rise above difficult circumstances, it’s Trish. Her Twitter can be found here: https://twitter.com/poodlewalker10  My reference to her tweet does not indicate her endorsement of this post.

Bishop Scharfenberger’s Remarks and Q&A at St. Mary’s, Swormville

The following is the transcription from a recording taken during the parish event on Sunday, February 23, 2020. Text has been tightened when necessary and any inaudible words have been removed to avoid misinterpretation. 

Introduction

Thanks, Father Bob. Now just to put a couple of things in context. As you know, I never expected to be here. I never expected to Bishop of Albany. I was a parish priest, happily in Brooklyn. I got a call one day that the Pope wanted me to become the new Bishop of Albany. It was a big surprise. And I was just as surprised by a similar call from a different guy saying we’d like you to help us out in Buffalo.

But I’m very happy to be here, because I believed my job as a priest to be of service to the church any way I can. And that’s why I’m here. I want to do anything I can to help you to be people of God has called you to be. And I say that because … A little bit about my vision about what the Church is. We know that Jesus has called each and every one of us to be a disciple. Therefore, each and every one of us is important and is part of the Body of Christ. And a lot of times, people will ask me questions like, what are you going to do? You, Bishop – how are you going to change the Church. And my response to that is, well I’m just one person. If there are things that are wrong with the church, we can’t blame one person. And if there are things that are going to be set right, we can’t expect one person to do that, except for Jesus Himself.

But what he has done, Jesus has done for each and every one of us is to call us to be a part of that family. So, my first way of looking at this is, we’re all family, each and very one of us. Each and every one of is a plays a part. And each and every one of us has to call out in one another what that role may be.

Percentage of Abuse

Now, another part of my experiences of late and I find it difficult to preach because I can’t help but think that anytime I preach for a congregation, a good … Well I’ve been thinking for a while, maybe about 25% of those in the congregation have suffered tremendously from some form of abuse. But I don’t just mean sexual abuse by priests. That’s a big, big factor. But I mean some form of abuse. Feeling disregarded. Feeling somehow unnoticed, unthanked. And a lot of times, I do hear that from folks. You know, after all I’ve done, no one thanks me or nobody even notices me. If I don’t show up for mass for a week or two, does anybody even notice that that pew is empty.

So there’s a lot of that. Somebody has advised me and said, “You know Bishop, it’s not 25%. It’s about 50%.” Which means probably the person sitting next to you, if it’s not you yourself, probably have a story of pain, a cross they’re carrying. Maybe something has happened in their life. So I can’t help but think of that as a context. I hate to see people suffering in silence. And that’s one of the things that motivates me just to be here. I don’t want anybody to feel left out.

Ad Limina Visit with Pope Francis, November 2019

So I hope … let me put it in this context. About three months ago, as you may know, the bishops of New York State met with the Holy Father, and his mucky mucks all over in Rome, the people in the Congregation. And we sat with the Pope, and that was the highlight of our trip.

adlimina shcarf

Bishop Edward B. Scharfenberger of Albany and other U.S. bishops from the state of New York walk through the Apostolic Palace after meeting Pope Francis at the Vatican Nov. 15, 2019. (Credit: Paul Haring/CNS.)

But, he sat there right in the middle, this big, palatial setting. No tables, no microphones. Maybe just a little bottle of water. And the first thing he said, after he prayed, was just that, “We’re here as brothers. And I want you to be able to speak freely. And don’t be afraid, you can say whatever is on your mind. And I will tell you a little about what’s on my mind.” And he said, “You know, there’s some things that you do that I really don’t understand, in the United States.” And he also said that, “I’m sure there are some things that I do, or I say, or people have said I say, that you don’t understand. But I want you feel that you can talk about that.” And it really broke the ice. So in that context, I’d like to offer that to you. He also spoke about how … That you realize how difficult it was to be a priest, to be a bishop, in this time, with all they’ve been going through. And I say the same thing to you. It’s not easy to be a Christian in our time.

There’s a lot of people who find it very difficult and very scandalized. And so is the pain that we’ve seen. And I can only imagine, when first some of these revelations started to come out, a year ago last summer, with McCarrick and of course the Pennsylvania Grand Jury report. The first thing that I felt in my heart was I felt, “what am I going to say to the pastors, and the people in the parish who are in the front lines?” That’s what I was concerned about. And with the type of questions that they would be hearing from their loved ones … What’s going on here? What can we do about this? And so, that is what really hurt my heart. And that’s why I’ve been trying as best as I can to meet with my old priests, and to encourage them, and also other parish leaders as well, because each person is a leader. You may be the only Jesus that may person may ever known. The people that you meet, they know you’re a Catholic, they know you’re a person who is close to the Lord. You know, they look up to you. And I want to support you in that.

Another thing about Pope Francis … Somebody asked, and I forget who, “What is it that you think about as you go to sleep at night? What are the things that really bother you the most?” You know what he said? He said, “What concerns me more than anything else is the family and the pressures that so many families undergo. And the need to really address that.” So here’s my vision of what I feel about the diocese and the parishes. I see a parish as a family. Or even a family of families. I see the diocese as really nothing else but a family, a family of parishes. The health of the diocese is in the parishes. So something I would like to do is to encourage the families and the parishes within the diocese.

Diocesan Assessments

A question that was has come up and I’ll address that a little more later … what about the assessments, you know. Every diocese has this. This is not unique. But every diocese has some form of an assessment of parishes. And the purpose of it, the general purpose of it, is to assist the diocese in helping all parishes in a way that sometimes it’s difficult to do a little bit on a smaller scale. So there are some things at times, that you could do a larger scale to help parishes out. And that can be all sorts of things, like aid to schools … And that’s one thing. Or for helping people, like a building project, they could do that. Or for helping to supply people that are catechists, and the teachers, in order to do that type of formation. Or the formation of seminarians, deacons and so forth. Some of these programs, even though parishes participate in this, are sometimes best done on a larger organizational level.

Basically, the assessment is what helps the diocese to help other parishes. You can debate that. You know, sometimes is it too much, is it too little, is it done fairly? You’d like everybody to participate in some way and the way they can. Some parishes may be more capable of doing this than others. And there’s a rational basis in order for this to be done. That’s the basis for this.

Abuse Scandal and Abuse Survivors

But back to the original, important thing is that I want everybody to feel that they are a part of who we are as a family. We’re a family of families. One of the things that has brought that home to me is the opportunity to meet with a number of people. I don’t like to use the word victims, but I like to say the survivors of sexual abuse. And I don’t know about you, but when some of this started to break, a lot of this consciousness that we have about what’s been going on, we hadn’t known about it. And all the shocking revelations that now go back some 20 years, back in 2001. Back to Dallas, the Dallas Charter.

You know, my first reaction was, “Well this must be something coming from the media, that’s trying to attack the Catholic Church. Somebody’s trying to hurt the Church.” And I don’t doubt that there are people that have issues with the Church, and have agendas, things they don’t like about the Church. It could be any number of things. You know, on the basis of our pro-life stand. It might have something to do with our beliefs about marriage and all that. Maybe some people feel that the Church isn’t progressive enough, isn’t going fast enough. And we talk about the ordination of married people, women, so forth. Could be some of those agendas. But I have come to believe that that is really not the best way to look at this. The fact is that there have been people who have suffered from tremendous abuse and that is coming to light and it is better that it comes to light.

Now, I don’t think there’s anything new about this. I think the reality of this – maybe you agree with me, maybe you don’t. But I think that since the Garden of Eden, there’s been things like this going on. This is the first time in which we had the opportunity to know about that.

But here’s the thing that has my changed my life a lot. I have come to hear the stories of a number of people that have shared. They’re not all victims of sexual abuse by priests. I mean, anybody that’s grown up in an alcoholic home – if I can say it that way – know how boundaries can be broken. And those who suffer from domestic bias. How many times as a priest, and you hear this all the time, somebody comes to confession, and then to break into tears. And the priest would say, “Is there something you want to talk about,” and the person will say “Yes,” you know, and “My husband if violent.” So they might talk about why she should leave him if he is violent and she might say “Well, I can’t leave him, because if I leave him, then the children won’t have support,” and it’s a tremendous struggle with that. And it could be children abused by parents, parents abused by children. You do know that 80% of abuse, of sexual abuse, happens in homes, by people that are known: parents, uncles, and aunts, and so forth.

So, this awareness, and being able to speak with people, and learning, it really isn’t about money. Most victims and survivors just want to be taken seriously, want somebody to hear their story, and not to judge them, so that they feel guilty. I had one woman, I’ll call her Theresa – that’s her real name because she doesn’t mind if I tell her story. She was introduced to me by another friend of mine who is a survivor. And he was a person who I met when I was on the Brooklyn Review Board. And every diocese has a review board that is a unique kind of review board. By the way, that’s one of the things that some people have asked – what have I changed since I’ve been here. One of the things I wanted to be sure is that our review board, that advises the Bishop on any cases or allegations of sexual abuse by clergy is truly independent.

So, I made some changes right up front, in terms of who was on that board. In other words, I didn’t want it to be an over-representation by the diocesan officials. That the persons on the board were not employees. And that they truly were independent. No attorneys on the board, no diocesan attorneys. Not even the Vicar General. But people who truly would speak their minds, and I made it very, very clear that I expect them and commissioned them to be independent. I always tell them don’t be afraid of offending me. Tell me the truth, I can deal with the truth. Don’t be afraid of what the Bishop will say, what he will think, you know. Like any other human being when I hear stuff sometimes I, you know, I lose my cool. But, I want to be told the truth. And I think they understand that.

But I had that experience during my time on the Brooklyn Review Board. I was the one priest that was chosen by the other clergy to be there because I am a canon lawyer like Father Zilliox. But I came to really know some of these folks, their intentions, their honesty, the truth of what they’ve experienced. And it’s really, really changed my life.

Speaking about Teresa… she had suffered her abuse when she was about six years old, at the hands of a priest friend of the family, when he used to visit her parents. They thought the priest was a living saint. And she didn’t know, of course. What does a six year old know what was happening. And he started to abuse her. This went on for three years, until she was nine.

And then he got sick, and he didn’t visit anymore. How does a nine-year old, a six-year old, process this, you know. And she had two other sisters. And she shared with me some of the things that she went through, some of these stages, like oh, she started to think … Obviously, she didn’t feel … I shouldn’t say, obviously. Maybe that’s not obvious. But she didn’t feel she could tell her parents, because her parents loved this priest so much. And she was afraid they wouldn’t believe her. So, it created some distance with her parents. And then she started to feel guilty, that maybe this was happening to her sisters, too. So she felt a responsibility that somehow she the victim, was bad, or worse, because she didn’t help protect her sister. Now, this is a nine-year old girl dealing with this.

So you can see how with this kind of experience, and not having anybody to talk to, and feeling even more guilty because she wasn’t talking to anyone, you can understand the dilemma here. She went into her teen years, and being a very brilliant person, she did well in school, but gradually, she started a lot of other issues, depression and so forth. She thought of taking her own life.

As Teresa tells the story, she says, “You know, I left the church 13 times.” She did go through anger and rage. By the way, let me say this. If you any of you are angry about anything, don’t repress it. That’s the necessary stage. And if you’re angry about something, say it, say it. You can’t deny it. But you can’t stay here either. Anger can be a very good thing, because it can be very justified, and it has to be expressed.

But then, it can also be a motivation, and say, okay, now how am I going to take this passion, and put this into something that I’m going to do to help this get better. So it could also fuel a passion. It doesn’t just happen, and you get over it.

You know, one of those things for anybody that’s been traumatized and some of you know this from experience, is that there’s what we call a triggering factor. I don’t know if you’re familiar with that. It’s like PTSD. Anybody that’s been a victim, if you’ve been to Vietnam or something like that, you experience battle. You can be home from that, and you’re in the kitchen, your wife drops a pan, and it sounds like a bomb going off again. It can trigger reactions. I don’t mean this to be in any way flippant or funny. There’s a lot of times when the person that has been a victim, of any sort of abuse, may not feel comfortable in certain spaces. So a person that calls up and wants to talk about their experience, they may not want to do that in a church because that may trigger in their mind memories of the person who may have been a priest that abused them.

But Teresa said she left her church about 13 times. She kept going back … And this is my point … She kept feeling called to come back. So she would come into the church, and she would maybe sit in the back. She wouldn’t necessarily stay for mass. But she felt Jesus flowing. And she said, “I’m not going to let anything interfere with my relationship with the Lord.” And, little by little, she came back. And believe it or not, today, she wants to help the Church. She wants to help priests. And she even came to me as the bishop and said, “Bishop, I want to help you.”

This has stirred my belief, that every person that’s hurt in any way, whoever you may be, is actually not only a precious member of our family, but somebody that is an extremely important part of our healing process. And particularly, those who have often felt most affected. To feel that you’re part of this mission that we share. So, that has been … What I try to do is, I’ve always seen this as primarily, as a fundamentally spiritual thing. Whether it’s adults or it’s children, it’s a spiritual, moral thing. We all need to understand the dignity of every person. We can’t use other people as objects. And if somebody is not able to fight their tendencies to abuse somebody … And there are people that have mental … No question, psychological illnesses. You know, many of the priests that abuse, themselves were also abused. Which isn’t to say that everybody who’s been abused is going to do that. Many people, you know this from your personal experience, who end up resorting to violence in the marriage, for example, or the relationship, were themselves subjected to violence, by a parent or somebody in their life. We have to try to break that vicious. And the only way that we can do this is by listening to one another and walking with one another and supporting one another.

Spiritual Renewal

In my mind, what I try to do is encourage everybody to get holy. So look at our own lives and say, what are the patterns in my own life that aren’t holy? Where are my vicious circles? What is it in my mind that I need to touched by God’s healing grace?

Because each and every one of us, Jesus loves. I remember back in school, they used to tell us “Jesus loves you so much, that he would die for you, if you were the only person in the world.” And that’s the truth. And if every one of us really believe that, that no matter what we’ve done or where we’ve been, or what bad thoughts we’ve had, or what has been done to us, or how unworthy we feel or how broken we feel. Or how hopeless we may be, it doesn’t matter. That Jesus is still reaching out to us, and into our lives. He’s saying, I love you, I would die for you. And it’s the whole story of His life.

So, more than anything else, I think that it’s a spiritual renewal for each and every one of us … Priests and lay people alike. And one of the reasons that I call for the consecration of our diocese to the Immaculate Heart of Mary – 33 Days til Morning Glory – a little retreat based on the spirituality of St. Louis deMontfort. I have found it in my own life to be tremendously transformative. You give everything over to Mary, and you trust her to lead you to the heart of Jesus. And that’s really what it’s all about. So, it’s a spiritual thing.

Administration and Investigation

And then as I said, the confidence in our administrative structures. I know there’s been a lot of thoughts and talk about cover-up, and things like that. And secret files, and so forth. And I can talk about that if you want. There is in Canon law … You know, there is such a thing as a secret file. However, personnel files of priests and lay people, have never been a part of so-called secret files. But usually they [secret files] were for things that were not in the public forum, so to speak, like a clandestine marriage, a marriage that took place maybe between people that was not legal, according to church and to civil law. Or correspondence maybe between the Holy See that was confidential, things of that nature.

And I said this many times, I’ll say it again: Criminality is not entitled to secrecy. And I’ve already asked the District Attorney of our county right here to please, come in, look at the files. I don’t want anything to be hidden. [in:

We know you know there is an Attorney General investigation going on currently. All personnel files are being subject to a review, to see if there is any evidence of anything that is being hidden.

Survivors Viewing Files

And I said it very publicly too, if there’s any person that has suffered from abuse, who wants to know something for whom it would be helpful, in the process of healing, to know something about the history of the personnel who abused them if it was a priest. And I would be very happy to sit down with that person, and let them examine the record to see what is in there. Where was he located, where he was treated, and so forth and so on.

And so, as far as the transparency and openness, ability to take a look at something that affects you personally, I believe you should be able to see that. So, I just want you to know that that is another thing that I have been trying to do, to open up the files.

Financials

As far as financial records are concerned, you know there is a Diocesan Financial Report that is published, and it is detailed on our website. And it is done every year.

Sometimes, one of the questions that comes up is, what about parish collections? You know, is that going to be used to pay off settlements. And to the best of my knowledge … Parish collections are merely … The money that comes from parish collections belong to the parish. A parish is a separate corporation, according to New York state law. And not even the Bishop can just say “give me your collection.” That’s why I have to ask for your assessment – I can’t just come in and take it. That is your money – that is parish money. But I’m asking for your support for the diocesan services that are really there for you, and for all of your parishes. It’s not for me or for anybody else.

So, there is that, that separation. Now again, I understand, there may not be credibility, and I accept that. But you know what I’m saying, that I have to follow the law, too. So, when I was asked by the press on the very first day, they were asking me if I’m going to make changes and publish the files, and things like that. I said I will do whatever I can within the parameters of canon and civil law. So, I want to follow whatever the procedures are. But to answer the question though, parish funds cannot be used to pay the settlements.

So, I don’t know if there are other questions, but these are some of the things that I’ve been hearing, about transparency, and files, about finances.

Abusive Priests

What are we doing about priests that abused – you know, where are they? Who monitors them? This is one of the things that I take very seriously. And I’m in the process right now of making sure that I have contact with all of them and know who they are. Again, my own Diocese of Albany, and I don’t want to do anything here I’m not doing there, and vice-versa. But recently, I formed a committee, that’s specific role is to make sure that even if process has not been completed yet, that we know where he is, and that he has supervision. So, it’s very, very important that we take care of that…. You know, we’re a big family, and both those that have done wrong, as well as those who have been harmed.

Miscellaneous

So, I think I’ve spoken a little too much. But I wanted to give you some ideas of some of the things that I’ve been reading about, and trying to do, and … But you may have some advice for me. And you may have some questions for me about things that … And ask me about anything. Some people want the Latin Mass back, and I actually did a baptism yesterday in the traditional form, in the Latin Rite. I don’t know if you’ve ever seen it. It was very interesting.

But one of the things that impressed me is that in the old Latin Rite, there was a lot of mention about the devil and the influence of evil. And I don’t see a lot of that in the new rite. You know, I remember back in the ’60s, and that was a time we were burning all this stuff, and everyone’s just having fun and didn’t want to talk about sin anymore. I don’t think we need to worry about that in our day and age, to be honest with you, that the devil is real. Satanic influences are real. Temptation is real. And we need to pray to St. Michael the Archangel. And we need a savior because we can’t save ourselves. So anyway, but it was a fascinating thing to see that, the desire to protect the child from the influence of evil, it was mentioned again and again.

And I’m saying, isn’t that really where we failed. And that’s one of the reasons today, thank God, we do have, I think better procedures – if you see something, say something. Do not be afraid. If you know somebody that talks to you say, don’t be afraid. Talk to the Bishop. It’s okay, I won’t yell at anybody, I promise. And I know you have a nice pastor. But I can’t guarantee that everyone who approaches a church person, is always going to feel you know that they’re going to be taken seriously.

So, I don’t know, the first person that asks a question, you’re the bravest.

Question & Answer Period

Moderator:

Thank you. Just to remind you to please line up in the center aisle and we will have one question per person and I’ll let you know when we’re starting to run out of time.

#1 Questioner:

Your Excellency, we thank you for coming here. We do have a question, with regards to the three clergymen who are credibly accused of sexual abuse. One of whom has a very nasty history, going back several years, and going back to the seminary. None of the victims have received any kind of support, or any kind of reconciliation, with regards to what has happened to them, what has occurred with those priests. And, even in this diocese, we don’t know what’s going on. We don’t know what’s happening with these three priests, and their victims. So, I must ask: what is going to be done? And I think that is a fair question to ask about these three members of the clergy and for their former parishioners.

Bishop Scharfenberger:

If you would do me a favor, to write down the names of those three priests, and any victims that you may know of, so that I may get in contact with them and I’ll do what I can to address it.

1st Questioner:

I’ve already given Father Bob an eight-page treatise on the subject.

Bishop Scharfenberger:

Then if it’s okay with you, please get that to me and I’ll do what I can.

2nd Questioner:

Good afternoon, Bishop. You said that the parish funds are not to be used in the lawsuits to reimburse victims. But what about the assessments? And what about Upon This Rock?

Bishop Scharfenberger:

The same thing. The same thing with Upon This Rock. The funds have to be used for what they were designated for, and what the program said it was for. And for the assessment, every single dollar goes specifically for the support of diocesan programs, and those that run those programs. None of that goes to any settlements.

2nd Questioner:

So, just to clarify. Where does the money come from?

Bishop Scharfenberger:

Through the specific agencies in the diocese that are responsible for helping the parishes to do their work. So that would be —

2nd Questioner:

No, I mean the money that you’re going to pay out to victims. Where does that money come from?

Bishop Scharfenberger:

Probably from the sale of the diocesan assets that have accumulated over the years. In other words … you know, from the sale of, probably property, and probably from money that has been invested, and the interest on that money. I don’t know if it’s started or what has been done. But that’s where it will come from.

3rd Questioner:

Thank you for coming, Bishop. This touched on a topic that I am very interested in – properties and the appearance of our diocese. In your time hear, we’ve learned that our seminary and formation center will be closing. And I know a spiritual center, a monastery, was put up for sale. As a lifelong Buffalonian to realize that the appearance, the face of our diocese is losing two long-standing institutions, might we expect any other changes, any property losses within the diocese, and is it for payment?

Bishop Scharfenberger:

Well, I can tell you this much, the decision not to continue with the seminary program is not related to settlements, at all. It’s based upon the actuals, the circumstances we’ll be facing were actually faced for many years, in which the seminary budget had a severe deficit, of roughly about $500,000 a year. And the reason that it’s been able to continue … And it’s been a wonderful seminary. I want to say that the history is illustrious, and that has to be fully acknowledged.

But, for a number of years, the reason the seminary is able to continue is because of substantial reserves, that have built up over the years. And occasionally extraordinary gifts of friends, who have been able to help it. Of course, we can’t plan on those extraordinary gifts. But as we were looking forward, what we were seeing is that the reserves that we have been counting on, will run out in a year and a half. So in a year and a half, they would no longer be there, we would still have that $500,000 shortfall.

And the diocese itself, we’re not in a position to support the seminary. So, the question was, when did we make that decision? You know, to not continue any operation. So I was faced with the question of, all right, when do we do this? Do we do this now? Or, do we put it down the road? If we were to put it down the road, the only time we probably could face that debt would be next year at this time. The reason being that an academic institution like the seminary, where you have faculty and staff that have to plan for their own future. They have to have time to do that. So you can’t make that decision in June, or in September, whether it’s in operation. So it really has to be done before that second semester starts.

So, I made the decision to ask … Basically I asked the board to consider this. You know, there was also a study done by a non-binding committee, that actually did recommend that this particular decision … Actually made three recommendations. And that information was shared with the board. There was, I have to say, a very, very intense discussion on the board and many people weighed in.

But ultimately, the majority of the board did decide to make the recommendation to close. They brought that recommendation to me and I brought that to the members, the corporate members, and the rector, and so forth. They accepted that. But the decision was not based upon any … Actually, my understanding is, is that the land is owned by the diocese. But that the buildings themselves are owned by the corporation, the seminary corporation. So what eventually will happen to that remains to be seen. There may be some interest by developers, moving forward.

We’ll also say that we will continue to support the promotion of vocations. But actually we will involve even more people locally, in the formation of our priest and seminarian, as most dioceses do. So they will be sent to seminaries for their theological education.

But they will receive also pastoral formation, human formation, spiritual formation, and it will be done most likely right here in our diocese. And we will do that well I can assure you of that. We have to continue to promote a culture of vocations. And if you have a vocations committee in your parish, great. If you don’t, let me know, because I want to start one. Because sometimes, the best way to move vocations forward is just to ask, and pray. I know a lot of people … Well, I can tell you a story, but there’s other people that want to speak.

4th Questioner:

Good afternoon. This has been a long struggle in this diocese, and a long process. There have been a lot of punitive actions before you got here. And this parish, as you may know, has been very outspoken. We have members of our parish who have been very outspoken, on TV and different places. And, we have been made to feel that we are free to speak, and to share our opinions, which is not the case in other parishes in the diocese. I would like from you, some sort of guarantee or word, that our people who have spoken out, such as Father Bob and Deacon Paul Snyder, are not going to be punished. That they’re not going to be asked to leave this parish.

<Spontaneous and sustained applause that led to a standing ovation>

I’m a lifelong Catholic. I’ve been in church choir for most of my life. I’m here because of this parish, because of this community. And of our neighbors. And I can tell you right now, as difficult as it is, depending on change of leadership of this parish, I will be out again. It’s a very, very difficult thing as a lifelong Catholic, because this is a huge part of my life and tradition. And it hurts me when I have left for periods of time. So I just asking for your reassurance. Thank you for coming here.

Bishop Scharfenberger:

I can reassure you that we don’t punish people for speaking truth. So, that’s one thing that I assure you of. As far as transferring pastors and people like that, there’s any number of reasons that a bishop may transfer a pastor. Could be for the needs of the parish. Nowadays, it’s less likely that you will take a pastor from a parish, it’s more likely to give him another parish, or another job to do, while keeping his current job. So that’s been the pattern.

But I can tell you, in my mind, that this vindictiveness is just not part of the Christian gospel. So if that’s a reassurance, take it as such. Any decisions that I would take or I hope my successor would always be based upon what’s in the best interest of the diocese. And sometimes pastors themselves ask for change, too. They don’t always get it, but sometimes they do.

But those would be the processes we follow, and I would hope that that’s … I can’t speak for the past. I’m saying this may be different from what was done in the past. I can tell you as long as I’m here, any decisions that are made will be based upon pastoral duty. And you know, anytime with a change pastors, and I’m not thinking that way, okay? But, many times that a pastor has taken from one parish, to go to another parish, it’s always very difficult to accept.

So you have to be prepared for that possibility. Sometimes people are changed for health reasons, you know? So, I can’t give a guarantee. But I can tell that as far as reasons why somebody would be moved or transferred will not be based on any sort of vindictiveness or punishment. That’s childish. Thank you. I hope you understand that.

5th Questioner:

Hello. As a member of a family that probably was here at the inception of this parish and built St. Mary’s church during the Civil War. You have answered the question, as far as money. And that was my main question. But I’d also like to make a suggestion, coming from my family.

For who are we going to install for a bishop? And I would like to see a pastor, a priest come from this area of western New York, not from Boston, or wherever. But, we do have someone that is possibly a candidate in this parish, and he’s come back here, and I would like to see him at least considered for it. I would like to see Father Jack Mattimore considered for bishop.

Edward Scharfenberger:

Did you write to me before or was that somebody else too?

<Cross talk>

5th Questioner:

All right. I would like to see that.

Bishop Scharfenberger:

Thank you very much for that.

6th Questioner:

When the whole scandal broke out, we were not supported in the diocese. We were actually left in the wind. I did want to know, moving forward, how will we know that the diocese helps support us? Because we weren’t supported. Our bishop came for our mortgage burning but when the crisis hit, he didn’t come back to help us. Moving forward, how will you help us get through, and help us heal even more? Because a lot of people have left this parish, that I have known.

Bishop Scharfenberger:

That’s a good question, and good, that’s one of the reasons I’m here now. And anything I can do personally when I’m around, I will certainly be happy to be here. I know I have Father Bob as a good collaborating brother to help. And the only thing more important that I can think is this … One of the things I had in my mind, is to create some way in which we can prepare, train, support, people in every parish … Or at least in every general area … That have specific skills or who can develop certain skills, in how to work with people in the light of these questions. So for example, if somebody does have … Personally has problems with a personal experience of abuse – who do they go to? I think … It pains me that somebody … You know, somebody comes forward and says, I have this issue, I have this problem. And then they’re just told, oh, on the website, there’s this number, you call the 800 number, you just call and they’ll take care of you. Now, that is true. There is an 800 number, and everybody’s encouraged if you know somebody that’s been abused or for yourself, yeah, report to the police, call the number. But I’m more concerned about the pastoral approach, and somebody knows that there is a person there, or there are people there, to walk the walk with them. A social worker would be one or a counselor, certainly somebody that has a spiritual dimension, because as you know, a lot of psychiatrists and social workers will not go into the spiritual development. So, what I’m trying to say is that I want to, going forward, develop sort of like oases of security in every area. Every parish … For example, if there’s 5 or 6 people that will support anybody that has any sort of experience, whether it’s domestic violence, sexual abuse, whatever, and there’s a safe place to go. And they will get the direction and the care, the accompaniment that they’re looking for.

I don’t want to use the 12-step programs as an analogy, because that may be offensive to some victims. But any of you that are in a 12-step program, whether that’s AA, SA, know that there is a wonderful context in which a person can anonymously come forward, hear other people. And then eventually maybe even get a sponsor. A person to walk with them. It concerns me that sometimes, where do you find a person that you can bounce off on if you have an experience. If you’ve been through a divorce, you know, trying to reorient your life. So, those kind of oases are important… It doesn’t have to be a priest or the deacons, you know, there aren’t enough of them around either. But if they’re working with the pastors and the deacons, and with some parish leaders, we could marshal the resources. Social workers, counselors, spiritual directors, storytellers, listeners … I think the charisma of listening is a very, very important one in this day and age. People that can hear and accompany, I think those are things that we can do, and I’m going to look to encourage that throughout the diocese. I hope that will help give some direction as far as I can see. Okay, thank you.

Moderator: I’m sorry. There will be just one more question again to allow time for the Bishop and Father to prepare for Mass. So this is the very last question for today.

<Crosstalk marked by several loud “no’s” from the people in the pews>

Bishop Scharfenberger:

Four more. How much time do we have?

Moderator:

Five minutes.

Bishop Scharfenberger:

Okay. So if everybody takes two minutes, we should be able to have that time to prepare for Mass. Okay? Let’s try this. If everyone takes two minutes, we’ll have to go fast. And I would like to get to everyone.

<General applause>

7th Questioner:

I am a father of the parish as you can tell (smiles at the child he is holding). I’m also the scoutmaster of Boy Scout Troop 92 here at St. Mary’s. Question and a recommendation. I know from seeing things here at St. Mary’s, they take very seriously youth safety here. The Boy Scouts, a youth is not allowed to be alone with an adult. Therefore, if that’s always followed, this stuff never happens. So my question is, can you assure me that diocese-wide, there are never any more children left one-on-one with any adult at all? That’s really the question. I think that goes to the core of the anger within the community, where people wonder, how could this happen? How could it happen long ago and could it happen again. How is going to change at this point? Absolutely guaranteed, no exceptions, would you be able to say that?

Bishop Scharfenberger:

I can tell you what the policy is. I can’t tell you that I can personally enforce it. It really depends upon pastors, and scoutmasters, and parents, to … Obviously, our job is to communicate what the policy is. So, we’ll do everything we can to make sure the policy’s complete. But then we also have to depend upon others to make sure that they are observed. If they’re not observed – they’re not effective. Will that help, I hope? That’s the best I can do right now. Thank you.

8th Questioner:

Thank you, Bishop. My name is Sue Snyder and I’m Deacon Paul’s wife. And I just want to actually make a statement more than ask a question. We’ve been members of this parish for 30 years, and my family has been here for many, many years more than that. And Father Yetter was very close to us. And we were at the very epicenter of this entire situation. And I think, as a parish, we are still really hurting. I know I am. And it is very hard to come to church. Without Father Bob and Father Mattimore I wouldn’t want to be here. And I think it’s really important that the administration, and the people higher-up in the diocese, understand that this isn’t something we’re just going to get over like this.

Bishop Scharfenberger:

Absolutely.

8th Questioner:

Because I remember when the bishop resigned, I heard Father [Inaudible Name] say, “Now that he’s gone, the pews are just going to fill up.” And my first reaction was, “No, they’re not.” And we come to church, but it is a very difficult situation here for many of us. I know I speak for a lot of people here. This isn’t necessarily about money, or anything else. It’s more about us because St. Mary’s is a very special parish. And I’d just like to know that you, and whoever succeeds you, will be supportive of us.

<Applause>

Bishop Scharfenberger:

Thank you.

9th Questioner:

First of all, the diocese did a terrible, terrible job. When Father Yetter left here, no one came up from downtown. Nobody did anything. It was a disgrace.

I have two short questions. One – what happened to that convent over on the east side that Bishop Malone put $200,000 into fixing it up for himself? Are we selling that or is it just sitting there? What is going on with that?

Bishop Scharfenberger:

I have no idea. I have not heard about that. I can’t answer that now, but I’ll look into it.

9th Questioner:

Well he put in hardwood floors and air conditioning for $200,000. And the second question is I want to know about former Cardinal McCarrick who gave $1 million dollars of our money to some crazy religious group. I want to know what kind of checks there are in the hierarchy today that they can’t just take our money and give it to anybody?

Bishop Scharfenberger:

I don’t know where he got that money from and I hope he is prosecuted criminally. He should be in jail.

<Applause>

Bishop Scharfenberger:

10th Questioner:

My concern is that there’s ways to speak out that can cause positive change and positive reactions, and positive healing ways for the parish. There are ways to speak out that can be very damaging. In my view, this parish has been damaged. We still need to heal. We are not healed. And what’s been happening, in my experience, is that we see a divide being created. It’s us versus the diocese. We are one family, as you said and we need to heal. And I believe that the current administration is not taking that into consideration. The whole sex scandal is still going on. We need to heal and it’s not happening. It’s us versus the diocese. We need to be one with the diocese. It’s turning into a money thing – we’re not giving our assessment, that’s wrong. We need to support each other, and I would like to see some change happening.

Bishop Scharfenberger:

Thank you. Thank you very much. Yes, that’s true. Pope Francis has made that point many, many, many times, and our communion is very familial. We have to stick together. We’re all connected to one another. We’re family.

11th Questioner:

Thank you, Bishop. I have a comment – is there any chance that the diocese will consider … We have two great Catholic colleges nearby that maybe our seminarians could also … they’ve got space probably that we could use. And, to keep our seminarians here. I saw them on March for Life bus, and it was very inspiring just to see that many seminarians. And that was just an idea.

The other thing was, just a couple priests that have been exonerated. I know when they tried to come back, they were kind of shunned. And I don’t know how to help other people experience and know, if you’ve been wrongly accused, which I know in the workplace can happen, how can you have people believe you. You say No, I was exonerated, but that person will never believe that I was exonerated.

Bishop Scharfenberger:

That’s a very, very tough question because some of the cases coming up right now are civil cases so the burden of proof is not the same as in a criminal case. But we do have to be willing to admit that if somebody’s been accused, and if evidence has not been found… now there may be some past situations whereby there were priests that were accused, and the review board did not find that it was credible. But the uprising of people was just so great that I found it very difficult to assign, you know. And it may be very hard for that priest to work. And that may be very unfair to the priest. There may be things that are true, but cannot be proved. So you have to find some way in which, you can find some industry that keeps a person out of contact with children, in a convent or something, or a hospital situation and things like that. So it’s a very difficult thing to do. How do you get back your reputation, even if it proves that there is no basis for the allegation? So, it’s … I don’t know if there is one answer to that.

But, just let me say, thank you very much. This is just a great parish. So, I’ll be very happy to come back anytime. And if you want to talk about everything, just let me know, and-

<Applause>

I should be clapping for you, because you’re God’s people. So witness to that faith. And you know, one time a brother who I respect very highly, said the most diabolical of all temptations, is the temptation to discouragement. It’s exactly what the devil wants, to pull us down, to make us pull down one another. So, what we want to do is remember that we’re never abandoned – Jesus is always with us. And each and every one of us, as we read in the Gospel a few weeks ago, is a light to one another. So let’s be the light of the world and salt of the earth, and we’ll one bear another. Okay? God bless.

<Applause>

 

Mixed Messages

Bankruptcy edges ever nearer. Accused abusers concelebrate. An abuser-priest sexually harasses and retraumatizes a victim-priest. A bishop’s “efforts fall short or fail miserably,” to use his own words.

And it’s only Tuesday.

Like many people, I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about the St. Leo’s fiasco*. I’ve posted many of those thoughts on social media. Tonight I want to share a deeper reflection with a focus on Monday’s mixed messages of which there were so many I must organize them within categories.

Mixed Message to the Priests 

We know that at least 4 “credibly accused” priests concelebrated at yesterday’s Mass with Bishop Scharfenberger’s approval: Gresock, Ingalls, Maryanski and Wolski. All four of these priests’ cases are going to Rome and Ingalls’ is already there. (According to the Diocese’s online record, which can be accessed by clicking here.)

A case “goes to Rome” after the local bishop and review board finds a claim or claims of abuse against a priest to have “a semblance of truth.” The case is sent to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, which is commonly known as the CDF. The oldest of the nine congregations of the Roman Curia, the CDF is separated into four distinct offices: doctrinal, disciplinary, matrimonial and clerical. That disciplinary office is the one which investigates grave delicts – the most serious crimes in the Church such as those that violate the Holy Eucharist or the seal of confession plus sexual crimes committed by clerics against minors.

Once the case lands in the CDF, it will likely sit there for a while. In 2019, there were a record 1,000 cases submitted to the CDF and yet that number still seems slight considering the scope of this worldwide abuse scandal. Eventually the case documents will be reviewed by CDF officials who will instruct the local bishop on his next steps: a tribunal trial on the local level, an administrative penal process, or a trial in the office of the CDF.  A common result of this cumbersome process is dismissal from the clerical state, which is properly referred to as laicization. The priest can appeal this penalty in which case the matter would go back to the CDF, which makes the final decision.

In my informed opinion, these 4 priests are serious candidates for laicization.

These 4 priests know their cases are in Rome.

They know (or should know) that they are facing potential laicization.

And their bishop invites them to concelebrate with him and their brother priests.

What are they to think? That having your case “go to Rome” isn’t that big a deal? That they might as well not worry too much about that whole laicization business?

And what do the other priests think?

They know these guys’ cases are in Rome and laicization looms.

Yet here they are concelebrating with the Bishop and, in Maryanski’s case, wearing clerical attire, which is a direct violation of his decree of administrative leave.

Such behavior and allowances would suggest that all is well and that, in private at least, CDF investigations are nothing to be too concerned about. We know all too well that things being okay/allowed/ignored “in private” is a huge reason we’re in this mess to begin with.

It’s worth noting that at least two accused priests did not concelebrate Monday’s Mass. I must commend them for abiding by the demands of their decrees of administrative leave. In addition, several other priests did not concelebrate for non-abuse related reasons. So it’s not as though the 4 aforementioned priests would have been alone in not concelebrating. But even if they were, it would have been the appropriate placement for them.

Several priests have privately expressed their surprise at yesterday’s concelebration situation. These kind of mixed messages enable the abusers and confuse the rest of the presbyterate.

Mixed Messages to the People of the Diocese of Buffalo 

In Bishop Scharfenberger’s press release today, which can be viewed in its entirety by clicking here, he states that he and the priests were gathering in a spirit of “prayer and penance.” He also notes that the gathering “had as its emphasis the need for true personal remorse and penance.”

Prayer, penance and remorse: admirable attitudes as we prepare to cross the threshold of Lent. And a particularly significant approach given that the Diocese is also poised to cross the threshold of Chapter 11 bankruptcy.

But if this was indeed a penitential gathering in the face of bankruptcy, why did a catered lunch need to be served on real plates accompanied by both red and white wine?

I did some calculations based on menu details I received, the number of priests in attendance and the catering prices of the restaurant used**. A very low estimate is that the lunch for priests cost at least $2,725.00. Most likely it was closer to $3,500, but I can’t prove that.

Was this necessary, penitential or prudent? I think not.

I am not saying that the priests should have had peanut butter & banana sandwiches and chocolate milk… although I’m pretty sure that’s the lunch of champions.

But red and white wine, fancy chicken cutlets and grilled asparagus? Not exactly in keeping with the spirit of penance that Bishop Scharfenberger suggested so strongly in his statement.

The gathering at St. Leo’s occurred the very day after Bishop Scharfenberger was at St. Mary’s in Swormville in an attempt to cajole the parishioners there into handing over their sizeable parish assessment, which they’ve been withholding due to the abuse scandal. What is the Diocese doing with that assessment money? Paying for unnecessary luncheons, perchance?

The people of the diocese are well aware that bankruptcy is going to happen. Scharfenberger has made it quite clear that it is a matter of when not if. So he holds a meeting to prep the priests for bankruptcy and offers them a fancy lunch at the same time? The diocese is facing such debt that they have to “reorganize” through a bankruptcy filing yet they decide to spare little expense when catering a lunch? Talk about mixed messages!

Another mixed message: the abusive priests are the reason why the diocese is going to file for bankruptcy!! Their CRIMES are finally going to COST the Diocese something that MATTERS to them. (The lives, souls and well being of survivors have never seemed to matter much to the Diocese or the Church as a whole.)

Yet those same priests whose crimes are causing bankruptcy were concelebrating at this Mass of “remorse” and enjoying this “penitential” lunch!

Maddening. Simply maddening.

Mixed Messages to the Survivors of the Diocese of Buffalo

Bishop Scharfenberger talked about survivors a lot in his statement today:

  • “the need for true personal remorse and penance for the harm caused to victim-survivors”
  • “I deeply regret that this decision to gather privately in prayer and penance opened the door to yet another wound for those harmed”
  • “The well-being and healing of those who have experienced such trauma was and continues to be our constant preoccupation”

Constant preoccupation? In my experience, the constant preoccupation at the Chancery is on assets and reputation with a side concern for ensuring that retirement parties have full bars. I have seen precious little to suggest that much has changed in that regard.

Bishop Scharfenberer also mentioned his favorite motif – the diocese as family. He relies very heavily on this imagery in all of his remarks. Today he said “As a family we want to find ways to overcome what fractures us.” He has previously talked about his belief that “our victim survivors are our family.” Gosh, that sure sounds swell. But let’s see how this episcopally-favored analogy tracks in reality.

If the Diocese of Buffalo is a family, that means the following is true:

The heads of this family are well aware that certain members of the family have abused, hurt and violated other members of the family to such an extent that criminal prosecution should have occurred. The heads of the family did everything they could to hide this “problem” so as not to damage the family’s reputation or bank account.

For decades, the heads of the family continued to be aware of this “problem,” but did nothing to stop the abuse, help the hurting, or seek justice against these criminal acts. Instead, they moved the criminal family members around in the hopes that the “problem” would go away or they would “get better.”

As if it couldn’t get any worse, the heads of the family shunned the abused family members and made them think it was their fault, they were the “only ones,” and no one would believe them anyway. These abused family members suffered in silence without support of any kind from the family that was supposed to protect them and lead them to God.

Many if not most of the abused family members eventually became former family members. They came to the painful realization that the family did not care about them and treated them like the problem instead of dealing with and prosecuting the real problem in their midst.

So now the heads of the family are finally trying to figure out what to do about this “family problem” because the actions of the criminal family members are finally having repercussions. Money has become a constant topic of family discussions, but the heads of the family don’t want to talk about the real source of the problem: the criminal family members.

Instead, the head of the family let those criminal family members take part in a cherished family tradition that everyone knows they’re not allowed to participate in because of what they’re accused of. Later on at that same family gathering, one of the criminal family members harassed a family member he had previously abused. This harassment lasted for close to five minutes and occurred in the presence of many other family members in leadership roles. Not one of them stepped in to help the abused family member or to stop the criminal family member from further harassing and retraumatizating his victim.

TELL ME AGAIN HOW THIS IS A FAMILY??? 

The only family that comes to mind is the kind that specializes in cement shoes.

Many survivors have commented that Bishop Scharfenberger’s “family” mantra is painful to them. We Are Family is a great song for weddings, but it is simply not appropriate in this setting. Survivors are often estranged from their families because of the abuse they suffered. Most survivors are estranged from the faith family in which they were baptized and educated because any association there is traumatizing and triggering. It is not actually good for their mental, emotional or physical health for them to be “part of the family.” Talking about family in this context only adds to survivors’ pain rather than alleviating it.

In addition, it is important to note that most sexual abuse occurs within actual families, which makes the family analogy even more challenging and ill-advised.

Finally, “we are family” is a classic mixed message in this context. It sounds good, but it is contradictory and inconsistent. Sure, we’ll treat survivors “like family” at a Symposium when the media and powerful people are watching, but when they call up the Chancery to ask a question, they’ll get put on the voicemail circuit indefinitely. Sure, we’ll talk “survivors as family” to journalists or to parish groups because it sounds good, but this happy talk is hollow and very often hurtful.

______________________________________

My heart is heavy tonight as I write these words. I hardly slept last night because my heart physically ached for Stephanie McIntyre, a victim of one of the concelebrating priests, Father Ryszard Biernat, who was harassed by his priest-abuser after that now infamous Mass, and for the entire survivor community.

Because you know what IS a family?

The survivor family.

The survivor family sticks together and sticks up for each other.

If one survivor is struggling, the rest of the survivor family genuinely suffers with them.

If one survivor is under attack, the survivor family kicks into gear in order to support, defend and respond.

If a survivor is feeling down, their survivor family is there to lift them up.

Survivors stick together, support each other and truly survive together.

If Bishop Scharfenberger wants to use a family model for our Diocese, he should look to a family that has no mixed messages:

THE SURVIVOR FAMILY. 

—————————————————————————————–

*The full St. Leo’s story is available here courtesy of Charlie Specht of WKBW-TV

 

**I saw the catering truck when we were protesting and that restaurant conveniently provides their catering menu and prices on their website.

The Path Forward?

On Saturday, December 7th, the Movement to Restore Trust (MRT) held “A Community Symposium: The Path Forward” at the Montante Cultural Center at Canisius College. It was just over a year after their first event, “Restoring Trust: A Path Forward for the Roman Catholic Diocese of Buffalo,” which took place on November 28, 2018. (I didn’t realize until now that the first symposium had that similar “path forward titling.)

Unlike the first symposium, which was held at 7 pm, this one started at 9 am. You can watch a video of the entire event via this link: click here.

If you don’t have two hours to spare, here’s my report on the event beginning with the agenda for it:

MRT agenda.jpg

John Hurley got things started by welcoming everyone and noted their “robust agenda” which had been “in flux” given the events of the past week.

At that time, our Apostolic Administrator, Bishop Scharfenberger (henceforth Bishop Ed), took the stage and greeted everyone with these words of welcome:

“Thanks so much, John, it’s a pleasure to be here. I’ve heard a lot of good things about you. It was John’s article that I read last week and I thought had some excellent points and I thought, “I have to reach out to this guy.” Little did I know that he was going to invite me (to this event)!

I’m here primarily because I want to say thank you. Thank you for your heart, for your soul, for your experience, for all that you are and all that you do. I know you’re committed disciples of Jesus. You know and I know that the only way to heal, the only way to bond is in the name of Jesus because He is the ultimate Shepherd and the ultimate healer. Each and everyone of us as a disciple of the Lord has that mission – we’re a mission church. I see this as an evangelical moment or an evangelizing moment. A moment for us to open our hearts to the message Jesus gives us that we’re all intimately loved each and everyone of us.

I know there’s a lot of pain. I know that sometimes pain presents itself first as anger. 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 they’ve experienced. The darkness of fear is absolutely chilling. Remember Jesus tells us that fear is useless – it’s faith that counts. The more we trust in Him – He’s with us and He accompanies us wherever we go.

Now that’s my homily – I didn’t come to preach to you. But I wanted you to know where I’m coming from. That my trust is in the Lord. My favorite expression is “Lord Jesus, I trust in You.” We should always go back to that source. If we do that, we realize that we’re never really alone. Jesus didn’t send us into the word as lone rangers. He commissioned us to work with one another. He founded a Church. And there’s this wonderful cooperation among all the elements of the Church – laity, hierarchy, clergy. We have to find, by opening our hearts to the Spirit, what task it is that the Holy Spirit has for each and everyone of us. In a beautiful way, we each have a role.

I say that very, very broadly because I believe that our victim-survivors – they are our family. They’re part of us. While we don’t want to burden them, they have a tremendous invitation, shall I say, to feel a part of the healing mission. Not only by telling their story, but also sharing the insight and the perspective that comes at times from pain.

I did mention that a way forward is going to be through sacrificial giving. I’m not going to take up a new collection – I don’t mean that in a financial sense, although obviously we need those resources. But it’s when each and everyone of us speaks from our pain – that is the way of the cross. Francis de Sales said that every second of Jesus’ life on earth was a constant humiliation. He was the Incarnate Word of God, but He was underestimated, undervalued, ignored, swept under bus, if you will. Even his own family thought He was deranged. So it shouldn’t surprise us at times that if we bear courageous witness to the Holy Spirit in our hearts, we may be misunderstood, rejected, written off. But that’s not the way God looks at us. Each and everyone of us is a beloved child of God.

One of the Sisters at my grammar school used to say, “Remember that Jesus would have died for you if you were the only person in the world.” I want everybody to hear that and to know that. Particularly those who feel the Church has abandoned them or has not listened or hasn’t gone far enough to meet them where they are. Second thing to remember is that Jesus meets us exactly where we are. Wherever we are on our journey of faith – and there may be non-Catholics or Christians here – we have a God who constantly seeks us out as people. You can go right through the stories of the Gospel and see that Jesus didn’t have office hours. He didn’t say “You can see me as long as you fit into My schedule.” He was constantly being distracted even in the middle of prayer. He constantly went out of the box or out of His comfort zone. We need not be afraid to follow that example the Master set for us. Wherever we go, He goes.

I’m here primarily to listen and to see what we can learn today from one another. Thank you, thank you so much just for being here. Thank you for your love. Thank you for your presence. God bless.”

After Bishop Ed’s welcome, which was very well received, John Hurley introduced Michael Whalen, whose reflection can be viewed below:

As always, Mike’s words brought tears to my eyes. His good heart and loving spirit shine through every word he utters. I was particularly proud of him for mentioning that Bishop Grosz and Terry Connors must not escape accountability. Mike did a wonderful job from start to finish – bravo to the Man in the Green Jacket!

Mike’s remarks were greeted by a standing ovation as you can see here…

It made me tear up again to see Bishop Ed embrace Mike like that. Our former bishop never even met Mike let alone give him a handshake or a hug. Mike told me later that sitting next to Bishop Ed all morning was “like talking to my grandpa. He is so easy to talk to and he really listened to what I had to say.”

After Bishop Ed and Mike spoke, there was a very positive energy within the room, which was filled with close to 200 attendees. Then they started the “Overview and Q & A regarding Diocesan Bankruptcy.” Talk about an energy zapper! I’m not exactly sure how long this section lasted, but it must have been at least 25 months… I mean minutes. My notes on this section aren’t that good, so if you’re interested in hearing this part, you can go to the first link on this page and go to the 35-minute mark when the bankruptcy discussion begins. (God bless the lawyers who have to deal with bankruptcy in all of its boring-ness.)

Fortunately, the bankruptcy lecture was followed by an audience participation exercise because we needed to wake up a little! Everyone had one of these lists on their chair:

Qualities.jpg

We were supposed to form small groups and discuss the qualities necessary or wanted in our next bishop. Then each person texted their top 7 qualities – one at a time during 7 rounds of “voting” – to a poll that automatically generated “word clouds” based on the responses received. I must say, the tech part of this was super cool. I was impressed by how smoothly it worked and how quickly the word clouds were generated. Stephanie Argentine – of Listening Session fame – did a great job coordinating this entire segment of the event.

Attendees shared some comments with me regarding the list we were given:

  • Are we talking about a bishop or a CEO here?
  • “Aggressive,” “Dominant” and “Power-Oriented”? Why would those adjectives even be on this list?
  • If you’re going to have a list like this, it should include “Loves Jesus” and “Has strong Marian devotion” and “a man of prayer”
  • I’m a grown man, I don’t need a list of words – I can figure out what words I want to use
  • “Deeply spiritual” isn’t specific to the Catholic faith – that’s a really generic word
  • Continuous-Improvement Oriented is corporate talk – not church talk

(When it came time to vote, I focused on the H’s: holy, honest, hopeful and humble.)

There were multiple word clouds generated during each round. Here are some photos to show you how the process progressed (I didn’t get any pics of the first quality because I was helping my Mom get set up with the phone polling – love you, Mom!):

2nd quality - first pi.jpg

2nd quality second pic.jpg

3rd quality 3rd pic.jpg3rd quality 1st pic.jpg

After the third round, a word that was not on the list began to appear: Scharfenberger…4th quality 2nd pic.jpg

4th quality Scharf.jpg

Bishop Ed continued to poll well in the 5th round as you can see. In fact, he was the top choice of respondents at this point:

5th quality 1st pic.jpg

5th quality 2nd pic

5th quality 3rd pic

At this point, I noticed a little word at the bottom of the screen: LiPuma. I audibly gasped outloud as I almost dropped by phone on the floor. LIPUMA????? Click on his name if you’re unfamiliar with it so that you can learn more about what he’s done (and not done) within our Diocese during his years as a Chancery insider.

Msgr. LiPuma was seated to the left of where I was sitting in the back rows of the middle section:

LiPuma in crowd.jpg

Three of the people in the photo above are current Catholic Center staff members. I can only imagine it was this group that began texting “LiPuma.”

Let me pause here for a brief PSA:

never-lipuma.png

Multiple priests have told me that “no one plays the game like LiPuma” and “Malone always wanted David to be a bishop.” Elevating LiPuma to bishop would continue Malone’s tactics of complicity and cover-up. No one would be more thrilled by such an episcopal appointment than Malone.

But I am telling you right now, LiPuma will be made a bishop over my dead body. LiPuma is a huge part of the problem — he was in the Chancery for 25 years!!!! The absolute LAST thing we need is LiPuma in leadership ever again. Bad enough that he’s the Chairman of the Presbyteral Council, the primary advisory body of priests. Bad enough that he wrote a letter on behalf of all the priests in support of Malone when many of the priests did not agree. Bad enough that he was made the rector of the glorious Our Lady of Victory Basilica. ENOUGH. NO MORE. NO LIPUMA. NEVER LIPUMA.

But LiPuma continued to appear in the word clouds:

6th quality - lipuma big

6th quality lipuma again

Fortunately, we were able to get “NotLiPuma” trending in response:

6th quality - not lipuma

6th quality lipuma not lipuma

But by the last round, it was clear the LiPuma crew was still going strong… his name was one of the top 3 choices at one point:

7th quality lipuma

We responded back:

7th quality not lipuma

7th quality not lipuma big

As nauseating as it was to see LiPuma’s name in so many word clouds, it taught me an important lesson. There are still people out there who think someone like LiPuma would be a viable episcopal candidate. They’re either ignorant, uninformed or blinded by loyalty/friendship toward him (or the hope of being close to a future bishop!). But on the flip side, there are people who are not ignorant, uniformed or blind — who voted “NotLiPuma” as soon as it became necessary. But ultimately, the LiPuma/NotLiPuma situation was saddening to me – it showed yet again how divided and polarized our diocese is in many crucial ways. (I also wondered what Bishop Ed thought of the whole back and forth about LiPuma. It was a little embarrassing, to be honest. But hopefully it alerted Bishop Ed that he should look into the matter!)

Fr. Bob Zilliox was up next and shared some of the great work he’s been doing within his parish: (Fr. Bob was on 60 Minutes last year and was also on the panel at last year’s MRT Symposium.)

“As a victim-survivor myself, I think of one of the great spiritual writers Henri Nouwen, who wrote a book entitled The Wounded Healer. Over the years, I’ve had the wonderful opportunity to work with individuals who’ve gone through abuse whether it was sexual, emotional, physical or spiritual. To journey with them. Coming to St. Mary’s as a wounded healer myself, I tried to the best of my ability to help that parish heal. In doing so, it has allowed me the opportunity to listen, to open my doors to those who want to come and share stories. I could understand where they were coming from.

Here we are looking forward with hope especially during the Advent season. Hope that we can continue to heal, to collaborate, to work together. Like the work I’ve done with my Parish Council to put together a Strategic Plan as to who are we as church. To empower the laity as I did a year ago when we first gathered in this magnificent space. And when I opened the doors of our parish to a victim-survivors group to allow them a forum to come and share their stories, to listen to one another, to reintegrate with the larger community, to know we are here for them, to journey with them, to walk with them and to help them continue the healing process. So there are success stories… whether it be in re-energizing parish life, in new evangelization and catechesis, the program for priestly formation, forming our young adults and families through human, spiritual, personal, and moral formation. To empower the laity to exercise their prophetic role. This can begin in the parish. I tell my parishioners: “It’s your parish – not mine.” Just as St. John the Baptist said time and again – my role is to lead you to Christ and in all humility get out of the way and let Jesus and the Holy Spirit do the rest. This is the model I’ve tried to instill in my parish since I arrived and we have seen success. Is there still a long way to go? Yes. I think of the Chinese proverb –  the longest journey requires the first step to be taken. I believe we’ve taken that step at St. Mary’s and that, gathered here this morning, we take that step as a diocese.”

It was wonderful to hear Fr. Bob explain some of the reasons for his hope. He has accomplished so much good at St. Mary’s by ministering to that grieving community with candor and courage.

Given that this is already quite a lengthy post, I am going to skim over the rest of the event. Nancy Ware, a member of the MRT Organizing Committee, gave some remarks to kick off the audience discussion about “Parish Engagement.” She wanted everyone to talk about things they are doing within their parish that have been successful and that other parishes could implement. During this group discussion period, we were supposed to write our ideas down on a postcard that Stephanie collected to “capture” the information.

John Hurley and Bishop Ed gave closing remarks as the event formally ended. Bishop Ed was again very well received by those in attendance. I should also note that during both group discussion periods, Bishop Ed circulates throughout the room introducing himself and talking to various people. If nothing else, Bishop Ed is much more personable and ready-to-engage than his predecessor ever was.

In closing, I would like to say something about the “envisioning session” regarding the qualities we’d like to see in our next bishop. To my mind, it would have been more productive to create a list of bishops whose leadership qualities are ones we would be looking for. Granted, there wouldn’t be a very long list, but I think that would be more useful to the Papal Nuncio than a list of “top qualities” to describe a desired bishop. (I should have stated earlier that the top qualities generated at the Symposium will be summarized in a letter sent to the Apostolic Nuncio (Christophe Pierre) within the next few weeks, according to John Hurley.)

To be honest, our next bishop has most likely been selected at this point. Multiple sources have indicated that Buffalo has risen to the top of the list of vacant sees within the United States. There is a confident rumor that our next bishop will be named by Easter. If that’s the case, his name is almost certainly already known to the Pope, the Nuncio and the man himself. It takes time to work out the logistics of such an assignment (especially in terms of taking care of the bishop’s existing diocese) so they would not waste any time making their selection especially with Advent and Lent – the Church’s busiest seasons – looming. All of this is a long way of saying that I felt as though the word cloud exercise – albeit well done and interesting – was ultimately a waste of time and tech.

I also want to include these post-Symposium quotes from Bishop Ed that appeared in this article from the Buffalo News:

Scharfenberger called his conversation with Whalen “wonderful.”

“I thanked him because I believe that our victim survivors are an essential part of our mission,” he said.

He also said he initially found the prospect of coming to Buffalo to sort things out as apostolic administrator “kind of terrifying,” but he has been heartened and surprised ever since.

“Ever since I’ve come here, I’ve seen nothing but goodwill, fidelity, a desire to help, and I’ve seen it all across the board,” he said. “I believe that is the story of what the Buffalo people are, both within the faith community and beyond.”

He said he knows he’s in a honeymoon period and that as hard decisions are made, not everyone will be happy. He also said he would move with deliberation — not haste — in making decisions about bankruptcy and addressing demands to cut ties with those who have been accused by survivors of covering up abuses.

“It does sometimes get to a point, like in the case of Bishop Malone, where regardless of what a person may or may not have done … that sometimes it just becomes an obstacle moving forward that that person cannot really be in a position that they’re in,” he said.

He added that the diocese will have to undergo restructuring that creates more accountability, but the process must be both organizational and spiritual.

“People did unholy, bad things – evil things,” he said. “And the only way to eradicate evil is to return to holiness and to return to God.”

Love that last line… returning to God and to holiness sounds like the ideal formula for restoring trust and finding that previously elusive path forward.

Read more

A Great Loss & A Strenuous Month

Please keep Bishop Scharfenberger and his family in your prayers today as they mark one month since their mother returned to God.

According to an article in Albany’s diocesan newspaper, The Evangelist, Bishop Scharfenberger used to talk with his mother nearly every day and visit her weekly. It quotes her as saying the following when he was ordained Bishop of Albany in 2015:

“I can’t actually explain it. It sort of takes my breath away. I brought my Kleenex. … It was completely astonishing for us. We are thankful forever. I never anticipated anything like this. It’s almost beyond imagination.”

Reading about Bishop Scharfenberger’s Mom reminded me that we never know what’s going on in someone’s life behind the scenes. Yes, he’s a bishop so it’s his “job” to overcome personal challenges for the good of his people. But he was a son long before he was a bishop and the loss of one’s mother is life-changing, by all accounts. Even if she’s nearly 100 and had a good, long life!

Bishop Scharfenberger has had quite a month…

  • Lost his Mom, celebrated her funeral Mass and buried her
  • A few days later, he headed to Rome for the NYS Bishops’ ad limina visit with Pope Francis
  • Found out he’s coming to Buffalo as Apostolic Administrator (not exactly the best news ever)
  • Came down with what sounded like a bad cold or virus (from what he said at the press conference)
  • Made it to Buffalo after a snow storm in Albany and took questions from the media for over an hour

We’ve been conditioned toward cynicism here in Buffalo, but I think we should give our temporary shepherd credit for his emotional and physical stamina.

May his mother’s soul rest In peace. And may her son get some rest after quite a strenuous month.

Confirmation Conundrum

Since August, I’ve heard from parents who were concerned about their children being confirmed by Bishop Malone this fall. One mother told me she was thinking of having her child take the necessary classes at a parish that normally has their Confirmation in the spring – in the hopes that Bishop Malone won’t be here then. Another parent told me that they weren’t looking forward to their son’s Confirmation and felt bad about it. Still another dad told me he and his wife were going to have their child confirmed as a senior and not a junior to avoid Bishop Malone as the confirming prelate.

While these comments made complete sense to me, they also made me very sad. Confirmation season used to be a joyful experience. How well do I recall the Confirmation scheduling that Fr. Ryszard and I used to do in the Chancery. Father was such a marvel at fitting them all in somehow! And, to top it off, he would coordinate all of the details for each ceremony and masterfully guide everyone through each Confirmation Mass. The fall and especially spring Confirmation seasons were very busy for the Chancery, but it was a “good busy” because of the importance of this sacrament.

The Sacrament of Confirmation is not a “coming of age” ritual or a graduation from religious education. Rather, Confirmation completes the graces of Baptism. Together, Baptism, the Eucharist, and Confirmation constitute the sacraments of Christian initiation. As the Catechism explains: “by the sacrament of Confirmation, the baptized are more perfectly bound to the Church and are enriched with a special strength of the Holy Spirit. Hence they are, as true witnesses of Christ, more strictly obliged to spread and defend the faith by word and deed.” The Catechism further notes that “Like, Baptism which it completes, Confirmation is given only once, for it too imprints on the soul an indelible spiritual mark, the ‘character,’ which is the sign that Jesus Christ has marked a Christian with the seal of his Spirit by clothing him with power from on high so that he may be his witness.”

Simply put, Confirmation is a big deal. It is a special outpouring of gifts by the Holy Spirit which seal or “confirm” the baptized in union with Christ and equips them for active participation in worship and apostolic life of the Church (from the Glossary of the Catechism of the Catholic Church). The significance of this sacrament is also made known by its celebrant: a bishop. Anyone can (technically) baptize while priests give us the Eucharist, Reconciliation and the Sacrament of the Sick. Brides and grooms confer upon each other the Sacrament of Matrimony. Bishops are the primary ministers for only two sacraments: Holy Orders and Confirmation. Both sacraments involve a bishop anointing the confirmands or ordinands with chrism oil.

Because of their significance, Confirmation ceremonies were always included in Bishop Malone’s public calendar, which used to be published monthly online and in print. But since October, the Bishop’s public calendar has not been published. I assumed these special ceremonies were taking place as usual, but had no idea when and where they were happening.

So you can imagine my surprise when I read the following message, which was sent at approximately 9 pm last night to the Confirmation families of Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary Parish in Williamsville:

We would like to let you know that we have received word from Bishop Malone that he will not be with us at the Confirmation Mass. So here are the details that we want to share with you. As you know from our earlier emails, we have tried to be transparent through a difficult time in our diocese.

Originally, Bishop Malone wanted to be with us to help work towards unity and healing with us and all the parishes where he was scheduled to celebrate the Sacrament of Confirmation. However, recently, several people have alerted us that there were plans for protesters to assemble outside our church to protest the Bishop’s role in the handling of the victims’ cases of sexual abuse. We gave word to the Bishop’s office of this possibility.

The Bishop decided he would step down as celebrant of the Confirmation ceremony. He asked us to let everyone know that this decision was out of his concern that the students are not subjected to any disruptions on their special and holy day. 

Canon law allows the Bishop to give authority to a priest to confer the sacrament of Confirmation. So Fr. Ron has been given that permission and will confirm our students.

The sacrament of Confirmation is effected by and through the power of the Holy Spirit. The Bishop or priest is given authority to act in the person of Jesus to bring down the Holy Spirit so that each person will be sealed with the Holy Spirit. This is an act of God, not of man. 

Also, I want to share with you that the clergy and staff at Nativity are committed to outreach to the victims of clerical abuse. We continue to speak with and lift up the victims that we have met. We want to be a part of their healing. We want to work to heal our parish and our diocese. We will continue to work with you to bring unity and affirm each one of us in our Baptismal roles in the Body of Christ.

Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary Parish

My immediate tradition was one of shock. I didn’t even know there WAS a Confirmation scheduled today so I certainly wasn’t planning to assemble outside their church to protest Bishop Malone. Yet even if I HAD known of this ceremony, I would never have made plans to protest it.

Since I began participating in and coordinating protests, I have been very discerning about which events to protest. My focus has been on Bishop Malone’s meetings with important groups particularly the Presbyteral Council and Diocesan Pastoral Council. The only time I have protested a Mass, it was at the Seminary where we were standing by the side of the main driveway – not right by the chapel. And in all three cases, the Masses in question included relevant elements such as the Apostolic Nuncio’s attendance or the installation of the new Seminary Rector.*

Please know that I’ve done a lot of thinking about the protests I’ve called. I’ve thoughtfully assessed the following elements: purpose, impact, location, timing, safety, signage, parking, media involvement (if deemed appropriate), and even weather. I would never dream of protesting a Mass let alone a Confirmation Mass. The Mass is the primary celebration of the Church – the sacrificial memorial of Christ’s Passover. It is Catholicism’s greatest treasure for it gives us Christ Himself present in the Eucharist. For the reasons outlined earlier, a Mass of Confirmation has tremendous significance. On a personal note, I remember my own Confirmation with fondness and gratitude. I would not want to take away from other confirmands’ celebration of this great sacrament.

So we’ve established that I did not plan to protest today’s Confirmation or any other such ceremony. Then who are these mysterious people who were “planning to assemble outside (the) church to protest the Bishop’s role in the handling of the victims’ cases of sexual abuse”? I contacted the only other people I know who have organized their own protests – the aforementioned Stephen Parisi and his fellow former Seminarian and Whistleblower, Matthew Bojanowski. When I inquired, I received an immediate response: no such plans whatsoever!

As far as I know there have been only three active protest groups in the Diocese this year:

  • Bob Hoatson, who called a press conference and protest at the Seminary twice this past spring
  • Stephen and Matthew, who have protested at the Seminary, the Catholic Center and the Bishop’s Residence
  • Me and my crew, as it were, who have protested at the Seminary, the Catholic Center and the airport

None of these three groups had anything planned for today’s Confirmation Mass.


This left me wondering…

  • Were Nativity staff members concerned that some of us protesters might be there and acted out of an abundance of caution?
  • Were there rumors of a protest since our airport protest was in the news just last weekend?
  • Were there assumptions made that we would be showing up because it’s a Diocesan event?

As it turns out, the answer is much more interesting:

The people who intended to protest were Nativity parishioners! In fact, some of the confirmand families themselves were considering joining in the protest at today’s Confirmation. 

That’s right – a new group of protesters was organizing itself! Wow!

As you may recall, Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary parish has had a difficult history. Three of their recent priests/pastors have been accused of sexual abuse: Maryanski, Leising and Sadjak. Leising and Sajdak were cleared by the Diocesan Review Board and Sajdak was returned as the pastor late last year. Maryanski’s case is hauntingly horrible and can be read about via this link. Suffice it to say that the people of this parish have suffered over the past 18 months as they’ve learned about the abuse history of a former priest-in-ministry and dealt with the removal and reinstatement of their current pastor, which is a very unsettling experience for a parish family.

To the folks who were going to protest today I say two things: Thank you and Bravo! Thank you for having the fortitude and conviction to protest Bishop Malone. Bravo for having the strength to stand up to this shepherd who does not care for his sheep! He put your parish family at risk by allowing an abusive priest to minister among you for years despite Bishop Malone and the Diocese “having full knowledge” of his abuse history. Bishop Malone pulled your current pastor from ministry right before a Vigil Mass last November with no thought of the turmoil and distress that would cause you all. Bishop Malone pulled Father Ron to protect himself and save face – not out of genuine concern for any of you.

Please note that my praise of the would-be protesters is not intended as a commentary on those who were not planning to protest. I’m certainly not saying that non-protesting parishioners at Nativity are not good people or do not possess fortitude or conviction. Far from it. This is an extremely difficult time for our diocese and everyone has to do what is best for them and their family. It can be very hard to decide what is best to do in each particular instance. Unfortunately Bishop Malone continues to cause this difficulty and distress for people. Parents should not feel conflicted about their child’s Confirmation and confirmands should not be dismayed about who’s going to confirm them.

According to my source, Bishop Malone was told earlier this week that protesters might be at the Nativity Confirmation. At the time, he was determined to still celebrate the Confirmation. It was only much later in the week that he learned about the protesters being Nativity parishioners. This change in the identity of the protesters is what lead him to remove himself as the Confirmation celebrant.** 

This is a very interesting and important development.

Remember – the Bishop “asked us to let everyone know that this decision was out of his concern that the students are not subjected to any disruptions on their special and holy day.”

But wait! Earlier this week, Bishop Malone was okay with run-of-the-mill protesters being there. He wasn’t suddenly concerned about Confirmands and their families being “subjected to disruptions.” Rather, he was suddenly concerned about HIMSELF. He didn’t want to be protested by members of the very parish he’s visiting, which would be a very new and embarrassing development. Worse still, he did not want it to get out that members of the Confirmation class (and their families) were among those who were protesting! He didn’t want to subject HIMSELF to embarrassment and the latest episcopal low. So he did what he always does when a situation become difficult: he made his exit.

While it’s disheartening and discouraging to be reminded of Bishop Malone’s narcissistic cowardice, I am very happy for the people of Nativity! Their protest efforts were so successful that they didn’t have to actually protest! And now they can enjoy the Confirmation ceremony this evening at 7 pm. Their parish bulletin indicates that they have over 80 confirmation candidates – how awesome! I pray that they will have a blessed and beautiful celebration of this tremendous Sacrament.

Final thought… this situation really demonstrates the power of the people! Let’s continue to speak up and take a stand.

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Light & Love

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The Buffalo Survivors Group (BSG) held their first public event a week ago today. The days since then have been busy ones, but I wanted to be sure and document this historic event on my blog.

The BSG was formed by Kevin Koscielniak, Gary Astridge, Angelo Ervolina, Christ Szuflita and Michael Whalen after they met on August 13th when preparing to file their CVA cases the next day. It was eminently appropriate that their first event would take place on November 14th since it was exactly 3 months prior – August 14th – that these men were able to file their CVA claims right after the stroke of midnight. You can learn more about that experience via this link.

“The Guys,” as I affectionately refer to them, began getting to know each other better in the days and weeks that followed that historic August evening. They began to discuss the possibility of holding a public event that would provide support for fellow survivors while educating the public about sexual abuse and its effects on survivors. Soon they had a formal name, a logo and a motto: To Enlighten and Empower. They hope to enlighten the public while empowering their fellow survivors. Their logo symbolizes the survivors’ journey from the darkness of abuse into the light of healing.

As one of The Guys explained the logo: “We have traveled a long road being silent. The sun began rising when we came forward and told someone about our abuse, but the road continues because we still have a long journey ahead of us. And this road is not just for survivors – it is for everyone who travels with us, people from the past like our families and friends… and the people who are now with us moving forward…. and for the people we will one day meet and connect with.” The logo is triangular in shape to symbolize the mountain that survivors are climbing as they overcome so many challenges in their lives.

The event was entitled Enlighten & Empower: An Evening with Survivors and the goal was to “educate and enlighten the public about sexual abuse and the symptoms and effects that survivors endure – all done through stories from survivors along with open, honest and transparent conversations with the audience.” The event was held in the Parish Center at St. Mary’s Church in Swormville. This location was chosen for a very specific reason – the pastor there, Fr. Bob Zilliox, is a clerical abuse survivor and has been an outspoken critic of Bishop Malone and the manner in which the abuse scandal has been handled in our diocese.

Fr. Bob

Fr. Bob got the evening started with a warm welcome and a particularly moving prayer that touched on the many sufferings survivors endure. After that, a touching letter was read from Chris Szuflita, one of the founding members, who lives at a distance and wasn’t able to attend the event. Then each of the 4 remaining founding members shared their stories.

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Gary Astridge went first followed by Angelo Ervolina

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Followed by Michael Whalen:

Mike Kevin Bill

And finally Kevin Koscielniak:

Kevin

As you can imagine, the stories these four shared were devastating and heartrending. The old saying “there wasn’t a dry eye in the room” was certainly proven true that evening. The Guys showed pictures of themselves at the time of their abuse, which made their testimonies even more powerful. Gary commented that his current fight for justice is really a fight for his younger self, who suffered so horribly at such an innocent age. As so many attendees noted afterwards, it was an honor and a privilege to hear The Guys share their stories.

Sarah at home
Sarah Ann Shiley

After The Guys shared their stories, they opened the floor to questions, discussion and conversation. During that time, another survivor was able to share her story – Sarah Ann Shiley. Readers of this blog may remember Sarah’s story from this post back in June when Sarah was not permitted to share her testimony at one of Bishop Malone’s infamous Listening Sessions. WKBW-Channel 7 also did a story on Sarah’s situation, which can be viewed below:

It was really incredible to witness Sarah share her story in such a supportive environment to a clearly engaged audience. Everyone was extremely moved by her compelling, heartbreaking words.What a powerful juxtaposition to the “listening” session this past June! I’d especially like to thank Sarah for representing the many female victims of clerical sexual abuse.

It’s important to note that the Buffalo Survivors Group is not intended solely for victims of clerical sexual abuse. Rather, it is open to anyone who has suffered abuse no matter who the perpetrator or associated institution may be. As the BSG has noted: “Sexual abuse has lifelong effects. Survivors of sexual abuse suffer in silence from many symptoms. We want to educate and inform the community about the psychological, emotional and physical harm sexual abuse causes, as well as provide support and help with resources that are available to survivors and the community.” As you can see, there are no distinctions made regarding abuse or the perpetrators of that abuse.

The evening concluded with a brief presentation from Rebecca Stevens, Executive Director of the Child Advocacy Center (CAC) here in Buffalo. She was assisted in her presentation by Janine Tramont, Director of Development. Together, they explained the mission of the Child Advocacy Center: “to integrate and coordinate services to meet the needs of child victims of sexual and serious physical abuse and their families at a single, child friendly facility. Such response is intended to reduce trauma, promote accountability and facilitate healing.” Their vision is that children in their homes and in our community would be healthy, safe, and free from harm. 

The mission and vision of the CAC is very close to the hearts of the BSG Founders. As Michael Whalen has said, “There wasn’t a CAC to help me when I was a kid, so I want to make sure kids now a days get the help they need and that’s what the CAC does!” The CAC presentation provided the right note on which to end the evening – hopeful, optimistic and action-oriented. Many attendees spoke with the CAC representatives after the event to learn more about their work and to ask about opportunities for volunteering or other collaboration.

Although the event ended at 9 pm, quite a few people stayed for a while to talk with the survivor speakers and to connect with other attendees. Everyone I spoke with had a very favorable reaction to the evening. An attendee of the event told me that the evening represented a “leap over barriers” – the barriers of secrecy and shame, the aversion to discussing topics that are consider off-limits or taboo, the tendency to turn away from painful things rather than embrace them. This attendee and quite a few others were eager to know when the next event would take place. I told The Guys that it’s always a good sign when people ask about a second event right after your first one has concluded!

Because of the positive reaction to this first event and the desire to “enlighten and empower” as many people as possible, the Buffalo Survivors Group is planning a second event sometime in mid-January at a to-be-determined location. Please stay tuned for more information as it becomes available!

On a personal note, I found the evening to be very cathartic. Listening to the survivors’ stories brought on strong emotions, but it was a relief to express those emotions freely and openly. It is indescribably powerful to listen to such raw, painful truths being shared by such strong, resilient people. While the sorrow in the room was almost palpable, so was the loving support within the room. We cannot see or touch sorrow or love, but sometimes we can feel them to such an extent that they almost achieve tangibility. There was a great deal of light and love in that room: the light that comes from truths being shared and stories told… and the love with which those truths and stories were received.

Room

One thing I particularly valued about the set up of the event was that everyone was in a large circle. There was no “head table” or podium or anything like that, which was just as The Guys wanted it. They wanted the logistics to foster an open, honest conversation among friends and advocates. Another neat element of the evening: because the survivors who spoke were not introduced beforehand, attendees didn’t know they were sitting next to a survivor until he or she began to speak*.  It was a powerful reminder that we often don’t know that a survivor is in our midst. They are our family members, our friends, our colleagues, our neighbors, our acquaintances. Let us strive to always be someone they can turn to if they need our help or support.

Gary Me Bill
Thanks to Bill Ogilvie (right) for joining me as a Moderator for this event

As you may have surmised, I forgot to take any pictures during the event, which means I have relied completely on WKBW reporter, Nikki DeMentri, for screen grabs from her story about the event. I’d like to thank Nikki and WKBW, Fadia Patterson and Spectrum News, and the WIVB team (I didn’t catch their names) for attending this event and spreading the word about it. Nikki’s full story can be viewed below:

Please stay tuned for more information about Enlighten & Empower: An Evening With Survivors #2!

 

* Michael Whalen being the exception here