Even as a child, I was never one to use the word “hero” lightly especially when applied to living persons. Fascinated by Greek mythology and inspired by Christian hagiography, I had developed very high standards for heroism. While I certainly appreciated that people could display heroism or have heroic moments, I was reluctant to bestow the title of “hero” on anyone.
Until February 27, 2018.
It was a Tuesday. A memorably bright and sunny one. The sunshine made it so you almost forgot it was winter in Buffalo until you stepped outside and felt February. It was a busy morning at the Chancery. In just two days, Bishop Malone would be holding a press conference to announce that the Diocese of Buffalo was initiating an Independent Reconciliation and Compensation Program (IRCP). These were the final days of preparation for this major and historic announcement. The previous Thursday, Bishop Malone had asked me to email all of the priests of the Diocese to inform them of a meeting with him. The meeting would be held at a local parish right before the press conference took place at the Catholic Center. The Bishop, along with his Senior Staff and legal team, was focused on gearing up for this priest meeting and the subsequent press conference.
The hustle and bustle of the morning was interrupted with word that there would be a press conference held around noontime outside of St. Louis Church (across from the Catholic Center, the headquarters of the Buffalo Diocese). A victim of a diocesan priest would be speaking out about the sexual abuse he had endured. This was startling in two ways. First, that a victim would be speaking out in such a public manner, which was without precedent. Second, that this press conference would occur a mere two days before the Bishop’s.
The Bishop was either at lunch or in a meeting when the press conference began. Since he was not in his office environs, I was able to slip into the small conference room adjacent to his office. The large window in the conference room gave me a clear view of the proceedings across the street. On the windowsill was a large, wooden statue of St. John Neumann, the missionary saint who lived and ministered in WNY back in the 1800’s. He and I are both visible in the photo below if you look closely at the window on the 4th floor – one in from the corner – to the direct left of the Route 5 sign.
Across the street in front of St. Louis Church, the mother church of the Buffalo Diocese, a gentleman in a green jacket was standing amidst news reporters and their cameras. He stood resolutely while he answered the many questions posed to him. I remember thinking, “How brave is this guy to stand up and speak about something so deeply personal and painful? I wish I could go over there to shake his hand and give him a hug.” After watching most of the press conference, I returned to my cubicle, but I could not shake that image of the man in the green jacket. It was only later that I would learn his name: Michael Whalen.
Within an hour or so of the conclusion of Michael’s press conference, the Chancery was in quite a state. The biggest question was how did “this Whalen fellow” know about the Bishop’s press conference? Had someone leaked the information regarding that event?! What were the chances that this victim would speak out two days before such a huge diocesan announcement? The conspiracy theories that were raised seemed too convoluted to me so I just accepted it as a coincidence of epic proportions. I also noted that coincidence is simply another way of referring to God’s providence.
Michael Whalen could not have known the seismic impact his press conference would have. Any retrospective on the clergy abuse scandal in Buffalo must always begin with that February morning and the man in the green jacket. Michael stood up and spoke up before “clerical sexual abuse in Buffalo” was a search term that yields 2,690,000 results in 0.54 seconds. He spoke up before “Orsolits” was a household name in WNY. He spoke out before the McCarrick scandal brought clerical sexual abuse into the national spotlight once again. He spoke out before there were calls for Bishop Malone’s resignation and demands for accountability from all church hierarchy.
Michael’s bravery inspired many of his fellow survivors to come forward either in person or in print to share their stories of abuse and the cover-up. In the days, week and months that followed his February press conference, I would meet or speak with many of these courageous people. I will never forget their names, their faces or their voices. But it is Michael’s face that always pops into my head whenever I think of the Buffalo survivors. And it has been remarkable to watch how that face has changed over the past twelve months.
As I watched this brave man over the past year, I began to feel as though I knew him. I watched every interview he did and loved seeing that he seemed to be gaining peace as the months went by. I loved his genuine answers to questions and the sincerity that shown through his eyes. His courage inspired me when it was my turn to speak out. Over the past year, I gained an ever greater appreciation for this hero of mine. But during this whole year, I never once met Michael.
Until February 27, 2019.
Today around noontime I walked up to St. Louis Church and shook Michael Whalen’s hand and gave him that hug.
It was a surreal and beautiful experience to meet this real life hero whom I first viewed from a 4th floor window. I was also able to meet his lovely wife, Maria, who has shown heroic strength in supporting Michael throughout his journey. And, most amazing of all, the three of us walked into St. Louis Church to attend the 12:05 Mass.
For the past several months, Michael and I had talked about meeting each other. I had also shared with him the hope that he might eventually return to church as part of his healing journey. I could never have imagined how beautifully those two hopes would be fulfilled! As we neared this auspicious anniversary, it seemed most appropriate to meet on this date and at the location where Michael’s historic press conference took place. When I texted Michael to see what he thought of this idea, I was thrilled to receive his positive response. I knew that it would be Michael’s first time at Mass in many years, but I did not know just how long.
It was his first time attending Mass in 40 years.
It was an immense privilege to be there with Michael as he crossed the threshold of the church he’d stood in front of for multiple press conferences and interviews. It was a nearly indescribable joy to sit beside him as he attended Mass for the first time in four decades.
Forty is a very significant number within the Bible: Noah and his family survived after forty days and forty nights of rain. Moses did forty several times: years in Egypt and days on Mount Sinai. It took 40 years for the Jewish people to reach the Promised Land. Jesus’ fast in the desert lasted for forty days. According to Father Charles Grondin, “When we see the number forty used to denote time in the Bible, we are being told that something extraordinary and definitive is happening.”
Let me tell you, something extraordinary and definitive happened at St. Louis Church today! A very courageous man took an incredible step in his journey of healing. Before Mass, he spoke movingly about the beauty of the Catholic faith and how he never lost his faith in God. He spoke about how he is focused on healing and peace rather than hatred and pain. Michael expressed that he hoped attending today’s Mass would be a way for him to “start again.” How I hope and pray that will be exactly what happens for Michael.
Michael Whalen has taught me many things since I first glimpsed him from across Main Street. He has taught me that one person can make a difference. He has taught me that sometimes you have to speak up in order to see necessary change occur. He has taught me that courage is a way of life not a onetime deal. He has taught me that peace can be obtained even if the obstacles to that goal seem insurmountable. He has also reminded me that Jesus is always seeking us and waiting for us. His door is always open and He will always leave the (tabernacle) light on for you.
Michael – may Jesus continue to lead and guide you on your journey of healing. May He preserve the beautiful peace that you exuded on this one-year anniversary. May your relationship with Him grow ever stronger as you continue to seek Him. May you always know of His immeasurable love for you. May you always know that He’s got the light on for you in any one of His churches.
Thank you, Michael Whalen. For being a hero. For being a trailblazer. For being you.