It’s been over twelve hours since the Bishop’s first listening session concluded and I’m still processing it. Despite the fact that this was a gorgeously sunny Saturday in Buffalo, I’ve been feeling uncharacteristically melancholy all day. The listening session was a very unsettling experience for me. Here is the best recap I can muster:
- The event was MC’ed and led by Stephanie Argentine, the lead facilitator for the Movement to Restore Trust (MRT). As she expressed it, “we thought I’d just continue the facilitating I’ve been doing.” She explained the general purpose of the MRT and noted that they have 150 active members while 400 people have attended the sessions they’ve held with over 1,000 following their work.
- From the start, Stephanie made it clear that this was “not an open mic or town hall type meeting.” Instead, the format was as follows:
- Each table was asked to discuss among themselves their concerns, their suggestions for Bishop Malone and diocesan leadership (“how can Bishop Malone in particular best help or assist us collectively with this crisis?”), and their hopes for the future. After a roughly 25-minute period of “table dialogue and discussion,” each table was to select a representative to “report out” to the entire group. The table reps were given 2 minutes to present their table’s thoughts. There was a “red, yellow and green” time tracker that Stephanie used at the podium.
- After the table presentations, the mic was passed by Kathy Spangler to roughly 10 people who raised their hands when the opportunity to speak individually was provided. This was not a scheduled part of the event. After the first round of tables “reporting out,” we were supposed to do a second or even third such round. We just got through the first round at 11:05 with the event set to conclude at 11:30. I believe the random, unscheduled “individual comments” segment was thrown in to give the Bishop time to prepare his remarks and so that he would not have to speak for longer than the 10 minutes allotted for him “to share what he’s heard.*”
- Then Bishop Malone spoke for exactly 10 minutes. He took no questions and answered none that had been raised. He blessed the assembled and then Fr. Leon Biernat, pastor of St. Greg’s, offered a closing prayer.
- The St. Greg’s Ministry Center was set up with 24 tables of 8 chairs with roughly 20 of them close to if not full. At least 75% of the group was middle-aged or certifiably vintage.
- Bishop Malone sat at a table at the front of the room behind the microphone and podium. He was joined by a “panel” comprised of John Hurley (Canisius College President and MRT founder), Dennis Mahaney (Diocesan Director of Evangelization and Parish Life), Tom Beecher (MRT founder and personal friend of Bishop Malone), and an older gentleman whose name I am not 100% certain of so I won’t use a name. The panel contributed nothing during the entire event other than to provide the Bishop with moral support and older white men with whom to sit**.
- Father Ryszard and Father Peter Karalus were present at the event, but did not participate formally (I noticed that Fr. Ryszard sat at a table and participated in their discussion – I assume Fr. Peter did the same, but did not see him doing so). I did not see Bishop Grosz at all and thus assume he was not present because he is not in the habit of attendance without attention.
- There were more than a few Catholic Center staff there including Steve Halter (The FBI Guy), Kris Connell (Communications), and Rick Suchan (Foundation) among others. Rick spoke for his table, which I was a little perturbed by but had to acknowledge that as a St. Greg’s parishioner, he should be able to speak as such. I did wonder, however, whether he could effectively separate his diocesan employment from his parish membership. Another diocesan employee said nothing, but called out loudly in defense of the Bishop when someone was speaking critically of him.
- The most notable element of the morning was the tremendous polarization of the assembled group:
- Some people were pandering to the Bishop as evidenced by these verbatim quotes:
- “Thank you for being here with us, Bishop”
- “Thank you for what you have done for us, Bishop Malone”
- “Pope Francis has asked bishops to smell like their sheep and that’s what you’re doing today, Bishop”
- “We love our Bishop!”
- “Thank you, Bishop Malone, for staying in your position and not running away, but instead staying and taking care of us.”
- My gag reflex got a good workout during remarks such as these.
- Other participants were respectfully yet forcefully demanding action, accountability and/or resignation from the Bishop. At one point, a speaker made a distinction between “loving comments” as opposed to “angry ones.” I’ll take righteous anger over unctuous love any day.
- Here are some of the comments that were expressed during the “report out” segment*** – bolded comments were notable ones in case you don’t want/have time to read them all:
- We don’t need to restore trust – that’s what got us in this mess in the first place. The problem is that we trusted too much. We need to restore accountability!
- Abuse must be reported as crimes
- Bishop Malone should meet in a room with survivors to listen and talk to them
- The sexual abuse scandal was not addressed at parishes – it was too little too late or not at all
- The Bishop has not been upfront about a lot of things
- The cover up is the worst part – why lie when the truth will do?
- Hard to restore trust when truth is not there
- We feel betrayed, confused, lost, and sad
- Power and arrogance are a bad combination in the hierarchy
- Who determines what type of abuse “rises to the level” whereby a priest should be removed from ministry? (Referring to this recent news)
- We wish there had been a truly open forum today – a different type of format would have showed that the Bishop really wanted us to speak out. The format of this session directs our comments in a certain way and controls how people can speak.
- Importance of the role of women within the Church – separating power from ordination
- All priests should make a public pledge not to hurt people
- Training and formation within the Seminary needs to be examined – how are priests being formed?
- We need to know more about the law enforcement side of things
- The media is too negative – especially the Buffalo News and the Washington Post
- Catholics are embarrassed to be Catholics
- There should be an outline of what constitutes abuse
- The Diocese has let the news control us rather than us controlling the news
- Where are the people under 40 today?!
- Full disclosure has not been achieved
- The Diocese is acting like a political party
- There have been corporate sins of omission and a lack of transparency regarding financial information
- Seminary education and formation needs to be renovated and the process of admission needs to be overhauled
- We need fearlessness from the Bishop
- Support needs to expressed for priests especially those in rural parishes with no emotional support
- We are the Church – those are our archives!
- Priests needs more love from Catholics in general and their parishioners specifically
- The laity needs to be more involved in decision making for the diocese
- Every priest is guilty until proven innocent. There have been a number of priests accused over the last year – it’s terrible that they have to go through that
- Negativeness of the media over the last year – Diocese wasn’t prepared to defend itself and didn’t handle media attacks well
- Think of this like a game of chess – Bishop Malone, you’ve been acting like a pawn moving one square at a time. You are the bishop – you can diagonally cross the board in one move. Is it time to listen or time for action?
- We confess the bad things we’ve done to priests – we need to show the same respect to them and accumulate a mountain of forgiveness
- Do good people do bad/stupid things? Yes. The clergy deserve our forgiveness in return
- The Church is being run like a corporation – not as the people of God
- We are losing the youth of our Church because they don’t trust the hierarchy
- We have not lost our love for God and the Eucharist
- Our group was saddened when we found each table only has two minutes to speak
- Absolute power corrupts
- Many priests lead solitary and lonely lives – has that contributed to the abuse situation?
- The media makes stories – we shouldn’t trust that the media is representing the truth. We need to be wary of them.
- I’m angry and disgusted by the hierarchy. Bishop Malone – you’re the boss- do something!
- I thank the media for exposing what’s been going on because otherwise it would still be going on
- The Church shouldn’t be investigating itself
- Nobody is our savior but Christ
- I would encourage a different format for these listening sessions. Our table had people with very different opinions and it was hard to get synchronized for a two-minute table report.
Bishop Malone began his remarks by thanking Stephanie for “her gifts at effectively and graciously facilitating this type of gathering.” He thanked those gathered for their “comments, candor and courage.” He stated that in his assessment, the two general themes of the comments were 1) concern for victims and 2) tremendous love for the Church.
He noted his desire for collaboration with the laity while saying he “hears the sense of betrayal and lack of trust.” He went on to say that “the Church’s credibility has been shaken due to 50-60 years worth of this.” Bishop Malone quoted from 1 Peter 3:15: “Always be prepared to give an answer to anyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that is in you.” He encouraged the assembled to focus on and gain strength from their reasons for hope.
Bishop Malone also recognized the calls for transparency and highlighted his work with the MRT, which is “working independently” on these issues. The Bishop stated that he has met with 4 victims over the last 1.5 weeks and noted that this is a regular part of his ministry****. He also admitted that the Diocese needs to “do a lot better at communication.”
The Bishop acknowledged that it was “anxiety-provoking to be here,” but nonetheless he is “looking forward to listening at these gatherings.” He went on to say that “towards the end of summer, I will prepare my remarks in response to what I’ve heard at these sessions. Those remarks will be shared with my consultative bodies (Diocesan Pastoral Council, Presbyteral Council, etc.) and then we will publish and share with the media the concerns raised and my proposed response to them.”
The Bishop made a point to mention the past week’s Priests Convocation, which was “an intense but hopeful and productive” event that “focused on this reality that overwhelms us on the local, national and global level.” “Our friends from the MRT played a huge role in the whole thing” at the convocation.
His closing remarks: “I will get back to you on some of the specifics raised. Dennis has been taking detailed notes for me as I entered into truly listening. I feel your frustration and my own responsibility. I beg your prayers for me as I pray for you. Forgive me my own failures. And now I will offer a blessing…”
Then Stephanie spoke briefly and assured the assembled that the MRT would be taking “these recommendations from today into consideration” and asked anyone with additional comments to write them on the available 3×5 cards so they could be sure to “capture everyone’s input.” She also noted that the Joint Implementation Team (JIT) would be involved in responding to the listening sessions*****.
- I strenuously disagree with the Bishop’s assessment of the themes of the comments presented. While concern for survivors and love for the Church was wonderfully evident, the primary themes were more along the lines of: 1) criticism of the Bishop and the Diocese and 2) criticism of anything critical of the Bishop and the Diocese.
- More than a few times, the entire group felt like Congress during a State of the Union address – half of us would clap after one particular remark and then the other half would clap a little while later while the first group remained motionless. The polarization was palpable and deeply unsettling. I often felt physically ill upon witnessing this tangible division.
- Likewise, the event felt very political. There were those of us who seemed fed up with the system while other folks were defending the system or at least its operators. When a few people were speaking, I wondered what their vested interest in the diocese is. Political, financial, legal, personal?
- This was the first time I’ve heard the Bishop say something as direct as “Forgive me my own failures.” That line was so startling it made me sit up straight in my chair. This kind of humility has been sadly rare from him. May it not be the last such expression.
- The format of this event + the media not being allowed = control. Control of what’s said and who hears it. Control is almost always the result of fear.
- By its very nature, the format meant that comments were being expressed rather than questions asked. Questions are scary; comments are manageable. You can “capture” comments; you have to answer questions.
- They said the media blackout was to protect US, but it was clearly to protect THEM. Who’s afraid of the big bad media?
- It distressed me greatly to witness the polarization of this group of engaged lay people. The members of the laity are currently engaged in a battle to save the soul of our Church. We cannot accomplish this monumental mission if we are divided as was in evidence at this listening session.
- This was essentially a MRT planned and run event, which is really sad and disconcerting to me. I trust John Hurley as far as I can hurl him.
- The Diocese’s Communication Director was relegated to Mic Holder while the MRT’s facilitator strode around the room when she wasn’t keeping the kids on task with her stoplight timer. It was so obvious that the MRT was in charge and the Diocese was just following their lead.
- People still don’t want to accept the truth. They would rather believe a carefully crafted narrative and trust a silver-tongued prelate than reckon with documented truth. My soul aches.
Bishop Malone isn’t going anywhere.
Neither am I.
Dear Lord, be near to us and hear our prayers. Save us from ourselves.
* The Bishop is notorious among the priests for padding meeting agendas so that Q&A sections are as brief as possible. He will desperately seek guest speakers so that there’s only a few minutes left at the end for priests to ask questions or express their concerns. I’ve witnessed him do this multiple times for Presbyteral Council meetings and Priest Forums among others.
**Dennis Mahaney took notes so he wasn’t useless. The others literally just sat there. I thought “panels” were supposed to do something. Otherwise why are you getting preferred seating? Cause you’re wealthy and white?
***Comments stated were supposed to represent the collective opinion of each table. They cannot be attributed to any one individual. I took extensive, exact notes so these quotations are verbatim. A quote using the first person pronoun indicates it was stated during the “individual comment” section.
**** It certainly wasn’t part of the Bishop’s “regular ministry” during my three years working for him. To the best of my recollection, he met with no more than 5 or 6 victims during those three years. Two of them were related and met with him at the same time.
***** Phew, the JIT’s on the case. Problem solved. NOT.
Note: I seem to have an acute case of asteriskal snark.