Meeting Michael

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.

best view of me at window

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.

MW collage.png

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.

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.

tabernal

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.

 

 

 

 

Remembering Flight 3407

It was a cold February evening back in 2009. Typical Buffalo weather for that time of year… snowy, icy, chilly. When we heard the horrible news that a plane had gone down in Clarence, we could only assume it was a weather-related disaster. But that immediate assumption did not lessen the shock.

Buffalo had never experienced a plane crash of that magnitude – a commercial flight carrying 50 souls struck a house killing one person inside. We were stunned. 6308 Long Street – the address of the home that was struck – was less than 10 miles from the Buffalo airport! The plane and its passengers were achingly close to their destination. It was and is an immense tragedy, which was only increased when we learned that weather conditions were not the cause of the crash.

The effects of this tragedy were felt far and wide throughout our Western New York community. There was a palpable grief that lasted for many, many months. For the loved ones of those lost, that pain has never ended. I cannot fathom the suffering endured by those who still grieve their loved ones who perished that February night. Yet out of the ashes of their anguish, the families of Flight 3407 have become powerful advocates for much-needed improvements and changes to airline safety. Their tireless efforts have garnered high praise from none other than Captain Sully himself! They are incredible examples of how to deal with a tragedy in the most positive manner possible.

3407 names again

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Near the crash site is a place called Swormville – a hamlet in the eastern part of Amherst and the western part of Clarence. In case you’re wondering about it’s unusual name, the hamlet takes its name from Adam Schworm, a prominent landowner and businessman. The hamlet was originally known as Schwormville and is sometimes referred to as Swormsville. (Thank you, Google!) St. John Neumann, a great missionary saint who spent time in WNY, founded the “Parish of the Transit” that is now known as St. Mary’s Swormville.

At the time of the Flight 3407 crash, a young parochial vicar was assigned to St. Mary’s parish. His name? Father Bob Zilliox. Ordained in May of 2008, Father Bob’s first assignment was to St. Mary’s, which was under the pastoral leadership of Father Robert Yetter.

st mary's

Right after the crash of Flight 3407, Father Bob was eager to assist the community in healing from this tragedy. He approached his pastor, Father Yetter, about holding a Mass of remembrance for the victims of this tragedy and to offer consolation to their families and the grieving community. St. Mary’s is just 8 miles from the crash site and the closest Catholic Church. Unfortunately, Father Yetter was not interested in holding such a Mass and told Father Bob no. With great sadness, Father Bob watched as other Christian churches in the area held these much-needed services. He was distressed that his parish had not provided one as well.

Although Father Bob was assigned to St. Mary’s for three years, he spent only two years there. He was asked to pursue a degree in canon law since there was a need for additional canon lawyers in the diocese. With his naturally generous spirit, Father Bob embarked upon this new path on his priestly journey and ended up working for many years in the Buffalo Diocese’s Tribunal. Little did he know that he would eventually return to St. Mary’s.

During the late summer of 2018, St. Mary’s was reeling from the shock of alleged abuse perpetrated by their pastor, Father Yetter. Yetter was removed from ministry at the end of August and the parish found itself in need of a new pastor for the first time in over 20 years. But they were about to receive a great gift during this time of suffering: the return of the parochial vicar who had served them from 2008-2010.

Father Bob Zilliox was the perfect priest to be assigned to St. Mary’s – a parish in such great need of hope and healing. A victim of clerical sexual abuse himself, Father Bob was uniquely equipped to respond to the needs of his former parish. I have heard from many of his parishioners that despite their ongoing distress over their former pastor’s actions and the way Bishop Malone handled the situation, they are receiving great consolation and hope from Father Bob’s joyful presence among them.

 

One of the permanent deacons at St. Mary’s is Deacon Paul Snyder, who served with Father Yetter for 15 years. Deacon Paul was at the front lines of the response to the allegations against Father Yetter and was appalled at the Diocese’s lack of concern and care for the people of St. Mary’s parish. He became the first member and representative of the Diocese of Buffalo to call for Bishop Malone’s resignation. His strong, impassioned words on that final Friday of August 2018 will long be remembered.

May the Blessed Mother and St. John Neumann watch over and intercede for the priests, deacons and people of St. Mary’s Parish!

May the souls of those lost on Flight 3407 on February 12, 2009 rest in peace and may God console and strengthen their loved ones.

eternal rest by water

~ In loving memory of the victims of Flight 3407 ~

Passengers

  • Mary Abraham
  • David Borner
  • Linda Davidson
  • Ronald Davidson
  • Alison Des Forges
  • Beverly Eckert
  • John Fiore
  • Ron Gonzalez
  • Brad S. Green Sr.
  • Zhaofang Guo
  • Kevin Johnston
  • George Abu Karam
  • Sean Lang
  • Ellyce Kausner
  • Nicole Korczykowski
  • Jerome Krasuski
  • Brian Kuklewicz
  • Bethany Kushner
  • Maddy Loftus
  • Lorin Maurer
  • Donald McDonald
  • Coleman Mellett
  • Dawn Monachino
  • Dawn Mossop
  • Donald Mossop
  • Shawn Mossop
  • Jennifer Neill
  • Jennifer Neill’s Unborn Son
  • Gerry Niewood
  • Johnathan Perry
  • Mary Pettys
  • Ferris Reid
  • Julie M. Ries
  • John G. Roberts III
  • Kristin Safran
  • Jean Srnecz
  • Darren Tolsma
  • Susan Wehle
  • Ernest W. West
  • Shibin Yao
  • Clay Yarber

Crew

– Capt. Marvin Renslow, Pilot

– Rebecca Shaw, First Officer

– Matilda Quintero, Flight Attendant

– Donna Prisco, Flight Attendant

– Capt. Joseph Zuffoletto, off-duty crew member

6308 Long Street

– Doug Wielinski

blessed are they who mourn