Back on the Listening Circuit

It’s Sunday evening. A year ago I was still working for Bishop Malone – albeit less than two weeks from my last day – and would have been going through my normal Sunday night routine: reviewing the week to come and what Bishop Malone would need each day. He’d often be doing the same thing at the same time and would send me a flurry of emails so that I knew what his priorities and projects were for the week. Mondays were always wildly busy at the Chancery so although these Sunday night prep sessions gave me the blues sometimes, I knew they’d help Monday to run more smoothly.

Now I’m sitting here typing up my notes from Bishop Malone’s latest listening session and experiencing a wholly different version of the Sunday night blues. The blues of knowing that although much has changed since last August, so much has remained the same. Same bishop. Same strategies. Same posturing and prevaricating. Same old same old. Ugh.

On Saturday in Batavia, it was the same old listening session structure we’ve come to know and loathe. Stephanie led us through the standard introductions which included the usual suspects of Malone and Mahaney plus special guest John Hurley, President of Canisius College and member of the organizing committee for the MRT. His wife, Maureen, sat at one of the 20 tables set up around the room. Each table had 8 seats and at least 7 of the tables were completely empty. I’d estimate there were roughly 60 people present in total. It was a distinctly middle to elder aged crowd… if there were 3 of us 30-somethings, that’s a generous estimate.

My table mates were very sweet people who swiftly proceeded to sour my mood enormously. The first thing stated by one of my table mates was: “I don’t watch Channel 7- they’re against the Church.” And thus began 25 minutes of near blood-producing tongue biting on my part. My table mates talked about how the press is “inaccurate” and “not to be trusted.” They also questioned why “these people” are “coming up” with abuse stories “so many years later” and “why are we giving them money instead of giving them counseling?” I was slack-jawed at their innocent ignorance. These were clearly good, faithful people – two of the couples at the table will celebrate their 50th wedding anniversaries soon. What magnificent milestones and such testimonies to devoted, courageous love! But they were clearly blind to the reality of this situation.

However, they did listen respectfully when I spoke up in defense of “these people,” who are my friends and heroes – the survivors. My table mates were legitimately surprised when I told them about how much counseling costs over the course of decades and how survivors are not looking to make it rain, but to make it. To get through it. To find peace and healing – not make millions. Survivors know better than anyone that money can’t make it all better, but it can help to make a better life for them. And they deserve every bit of a better life that they can obtain after all they’ve endured throughout their lives.

In the end, our table was able to compile a somewhat balanced list of items for the “table report out” segment of the morning. I had been given the role of “scribe” for the table since they’d noticed I was already in copious note-taking mode. Here is what we came up with:

  1. The Church is being adversely judged by the public and the media
  2. The press is way too focused on the Church scandal – they’ve got a target on Catholics
  3. Abuse has occurred in other areas – Boy Scouts, schools, other churches but they only focus on our Church
  4. The media is very much at fault
  5. Why is it not explained that settlement money for survivors is used for counseling?
  6. There is a lack of accountability/punishment for abusive priests
  7. We are losing young people from the Church
  8. Catholic priests should be allowed to marry – this would reduce the problems
  9. If someone is accused of anything, it should go through the proper system of law
  10. Why were priests reassigned with a chance to continue to abuse?

Thankfully, someone else volunteered to read these comments as I could not have read the first 5 statements without choking on the words. Our table was the first to “report out” and the woman who spoke for us did a great job. It is hard to disagree with people so strenuously while at the same time admiring them immensely.

Here’s what the other tables had to say:

  • Parishioners are discouraged by the situation in the Diocese and it is affecting their their financial obligation to their parish as well as Upon This Rock and Catholic Charities. Volunteerism at parishes is decreasing as well.
  • Where does the money come from to settle these court cases that will be filed in the middle of this month?
  • Whatever is said by the Diocese is questioned by people as to the reliability of what’s said
  • Priest accountability – why were so many reassigned?
  • Obligation to our schools – this abuse situation is a financial drain on the Diocese and we are worried about necessary resources for our schools
  • We need to refocus ourselves, but there are serious trust issues and we worry for the future.
  • We need resources for the youth and young people especially in the city and rural parishes. We have to keep parishes that are hanging by a thread afloat
  • Court cases have everyone’s attention – we need to focus on other things
  • Priests in the past were treated differently than ordinary citizens and we hope that this has been corrected
  • What is the role of the Pope in assessing these diocesan situations?
  • Many people have financial concerns especially about Upon This Rock and are afraid those funds will be used to satisfy legal claims
  • It is important for the Bishop to provide transparency of where he is coming from for decisions and court case settlements
  • It is wonderful that the MRT was established to have the laity involved
  • Good to have parishes have active parish and financial councils
  • Important for Bishop Malone to continue to reach out to other areas beyond Buffalo and be present in those areas because there is a fear that outlying areas will take the hit more than the Buffalo area will
  • Offer of money is drawing additional claims to be made – emphasis should be off the financial element
  • We are concerned about the Lord’s Prayer and hope that the recent language changes in France and Italy will not come to the US
  • Young people are leaving in droves
  • We need spiritual strengthening
  • We have to put things in the past
  • The abuse has changed everything
  • It is hard to go to confession if you’re worried or wondering if the priest was just looking at porn before he entered the confessional to hear your confession
  • Our Batavia church is made up of 2 parishes that function very differently. 13 years ago, the parishes conducted a study and discussed various issues, but no one listened. St. Mary’s School closed and now St. Joseph’s School is regional and not under the Diocese.
  • We lack spiritual development here in Batavia
  • The Diocese should build us up – combine the 2 parishes because the census suggestions there are people in both parishes but they’re not coming to Mass at either parish. The Church in Batavia is very much aging.
  • The Bishop is doing the exact right thing by being here in an outlying area listening to us
  • People have great faith to be here this morning – wish there were more people though
  • Media is exploiting this and blowing it up far beyond what it is. They have an agenda and these stories are helping their agendas along. Other groups have abuse problems and they haven’t had their abusers pictures in the paper
  • We want to hear the truth – good or bad – fully discussed
  • What is the Diocese’s commitment to Catholic education? Schools are the future of the Church.
  • The shortage of priests is a distinct problem – priests we do have are spread far too thin
  • Need for flexibility of Mass times for sake of the priests
  • Financial and parish councils are also important for priests – help to take some of the burden of the day-to-day work off of them
  • Older people are all the churches – not getting any youth to come and stay. There needs to be better youth engagement – having a youth member on the parish council and a youth Mass once a week.
  • There needs to be more trust between the Bishop, priests and parishioners
  • There must be a deep structural change in the Church – there is a disconnect between what we are all feeling and what comes from up high in the diocese and the Church
  • Regarding the media, when we bring a problem upon ourselves, it is difficult when people emphasize it or blow it out of proportion. But the only way to truly fix it is to grab the problem by the throat.
  • Letters to the Bishop about priests’ conduct are never responded to
  • There is no simply solution to this problem
  • We have to accept the fact that there’s a target on our back from the media and the people on the street
  • We need to have a structure for the future especially regarding the youth
  • Somehow the Diocese of Buffalo and the Church have to train priests for evangelization and not bureaucracy.
  • This scandal has been going on over 50 years – it is financial, sexual, etc.
  • We have to address the administration of the Church and we cannot “PR it”
  • The clergy has been silent on how they reflect on issues in our society particularly regarding same-sex marriage nationally and in NYS, and the NYS abortion law. There was no response from the Church. The clergy are so silent on these issues.
  • There is a problem with the clergy and their sexual practices so they won’t speak out about it. It’s a popularity contest.
  • Thank God the media has come forward – sunlight is the best disinfectant
  • The corporal works of mercy are talked about and practiced all the time, but the clergy is not speaking about or demonstrating the spiritual acts of mercy
  • The clergy is complacent and are not providing good moral teaching
  • Getting youth and young families back to the Church must be a priority so they’ll bring themselves and their kids to Church
  • I am not blaming Bishop Malone for the issues going on
  • There is anxiety among priests about engaging with youth because of abuse issues. They are afraid to be around them.
  • We are worried that parish money going to the Diocese of Buffalo will be given to the abuse survivors. Victims should seek counseling and support.
    • Stephanie interjected here to note that at least one US diocese has established a fund for settlements for survivors so that members of the diocese could contribute directly to that fund if they wished.
  • This is a terrible struggle we’ve gone through this long while
  • There is a feeling of betrayal and a struggle to forgive
  • We must be a hopeful Church – we can and will be stronger after going through personal struggle of forgiving
  • Practical application – better screening of applicants involved in Church ministry
  • Next generation – there must be greater involvement of youth because they are the future
  • Faith formation needs to be family oriented
  • Catechesis programs need to involve and integrate families and youth
  • Young people are involved in technology so we need to use different instruments to share the faith
  • When faith formation is family-centric, we see the positivity from those kinds of programs
  • Revisiting the Batavia study that was done 13 years ago – all churches should be unified at one site. Unity is crucial for passing on the faith to the next generation. Hard choices may have to be made.
  • It is up to the Diocese to clean up these issues and get back to the basics of Catholicism such as the rosary and catechesis
  • Prayer groups are important too along with Bible studies and parish groups
  • We should find out if priests need support – often volunteers are needed
  • Parish groups focus on negative things – they should be building up the parish and focusing on parish issues. The Diocese should handle the negative elements.
  • Many young people are not well trained in the Catechism and have no appreciation of the history, tradition and liturgy of the Church. We parents have not been passing it on so it’s not just on the priests and teachers.
  • Abuse issue has distracted one member (of the table) from their goal of heaven. It has taken their concentration off of her primary goal to reach heaven.
  • Upon This Rock – some people believe that monies were shifted from one place to another such as from the schools and now that money is being used for the abuse pay outs
  • Parishioners are voting with their feet and wallets
  • Parishes are cutting ministries because of the limits and assessments the Diocese has imposed on them
  • We need to re-educate ourselves in the importance of the liturgy and morality
  • The MRT literature is very well done and expresses a lot of what has been said this morning
  • Parish transparency – parish and financial council should provide annual reports to parishioners
  • Faith formation for the entire family – kid and adults gathering on Sunday afternoons
  • I am disgusted by the Catholic Church and the abuse of the clergy’s power. I wanted to offer a prayer during the Prayer of the Faithful at Mass and the priest said I couldn’t. The abuse is being swept under the rug all the time. This is disgusting. No Pope or bishops talked about the abortion law in Albany this year. Then there was the USCCB wait from November to February. Then nothing got done. They’re a disgusting bunch of bureaucrats. The youth know what the Church is and they don’t want it. (This was all from one individual who spoke out but did not appear to represent a table – only himself.)
  • It is tough to see the Bishop selling his home to settle claims
  • The structure of the Diocese needs to change in terms of how things are done
  • We get our priests from Christ the King Seminary – maybe they need to have tougher classes for priests to go through on these topics
  • In baseball, if you violate the rules, you’re out – there’s no reforming the violators here
  • I know John Hurley is here, so Go Bonas! (A light-hearted close to the table “report outs!”)

Stephanie then invited John Hurley to the podium to talk about the MRT:

  • We knew the MRT needed to be in every corner of the Diocese of Buffalo
  • The issues discussed have to make their way into parish and diocesan life
  • Last week, we released our major, 68-page report which is the combined work of our 6 working groups comprised of 150 lay people
  • Many of the same issues that are in this report surfaced here this morning
  • The Joint Implementation Team (JIT) was implemented by Bishop Malone to increase the collaboration between the MRT and the DOB. The JIT meetings have been very productive.
  • It is important that we remain independent and be critical in the good sense
  • To his credit, Bishop Malone has embraced this process to rebuild the Church
  • There are severe consequences for victims of abuse – that was the initial inspiration for the MRT – the pain and suffering of people because of people in the Church
  • The IRCP claims and lawsuits are being filed now but there will be ongoing outreach to victims
  • There needs to be parish and diocesan involvement
  • It is so good to hear your comments today because it tells us that this MRT report reflects what you are concerned about
    • Maureen Hurley interrupted John here to ask him to review the 6 topics that the working groups focused on:
      1. Transparency around the nature and scale of the abuse in the diocese and financial and spiritual reparations for victims/survivors
      2.  Transparency about all diocesan operations
      3.  Accountability for bishops
      4.  Selecting and monitoring bishops
      5.  Greater involvement by women and laity in the Church
      6.  Improvements in the formation of priests & priestly life
  • There is additional work to be done – you can register on the MRT website to get involved and stay informed

At this time, Bishop Malone took the podium and made the following remarks:

  • Thank you for your helpful, significant and challenging comments, which reflect what has been said at other sessions and what has been on my mind and heart
  • I hear your passion for our Church and compassion for victims, who were the launching pad for this whole thing
  • When I got here, I discovered that abuse cases for 50-60 years had not been dealt with and sent to Rome. We now have 9 or 10 cases that are already at the Vatican, which makes the final decision as to whether a priest is laicized
  • We need to have justice, compassion and healing for victims
  • All of us have experienced betrayal – I too have felt that
  • Locally, nationally and globally, this abuse has been a profound cancer but that can be healed
  • The MRT is a movement of the Holy Spirit as I’ve said many times to John and others. Their call to accountability is a challenging one, but I am willing to accept it.
  • The trusting atmosphere of these sessions is very important. Whenever I meet with anyone, I always say that we must be respectful of each other and candid. If we aren’t candid, it won’t be productive.
  • Of course, the point now is not for me to respond to specific questions, but I have taken notes and so has Dennis Mahaney
  • Along with your concern for victims, I also heard your concerns regarding the financial element of all this
  • The credibility of the Diocese is wounded and so is mine
  • I must tell you that nothing from the Diocese of Buffalo or Upon This Rock is used for the settlements
  • The NYS Bishops supported the CVA once it finally included other institutions
  • Are we concerned about financial matters? Yes we are
  • $18 million from diocesan reserves was used for the IRCP settlements. Remember that the IRCP was independent from the Diocese – the claims went to the judges* and they decided the amount and we paid those amounts
  • So our reserves are going down, but we have more reserves to draw on. And there is also the sale of properties.
  • We are also in dialogue with our insurance carriers regarding coverage – some of it will cover tragic sexual abuse but not others. I’ve learned a new term – insurance archaeology – where people are researching what’s there and if it is covered by insurance, we want to use that
  • Please trust me that no money from Upon This Rock or Catholic Charities is being used for the settlements
  • It is tragic that Catholic Charities did not meet their goal this year due to the negativity of the whole story that’s out there, but of course the negativity is there because bad things happened.
  • I hear your discouragement and your dismay, but I also hear that you believe the Church is the Lord’s Church. I do too or I’d be a veterinarian.
  • Laity involvement – the MRT is a powerful manifestation of what Vatican II called us to be
  • I am committed to a new way of being Church together, but our credibility has been deeply bruised by this whole thing
  • I know my mistakes in how I dealt with two priests with misconduct with adults. We don’t have a zero tolerance policy yet with those things, but we are preparing a strong new protocol for the abuse of adults. That protocol is now being reviewed and discussed by my priest council. It was developed by the lay task force that was formed earlier this year.
  • A woman came up to me after Mass recently and said, “You know Bishop, you shouldn’t make yourself the lightning rod for all those things from 50-60 years ago.” That was consoling for me to hear.
  • Right now, the CLI group of youth is concluding their week at the Seminary. It is not all fun and games – it is about discipleship so that the youth come to know Christ.
  • We also have a whole new faith formation curriculum for the diocese that is totally family-focused.
    • At this, the Bishop asked how many in the room have heard of this new curriculum. 1/3 of the room (by his vocal estimation) raised their hands. He noted that this means they have work to do in further implementing the curriculum.
  • I want to accent that I heard your concerns about youth and family, which is a very important point that was raised today. I am fully in agreement with you on that.
  • The mistakes that were made 50-60 years ago represent a different era. There are changes now especially with the Charter and VIRTUS. There are graphs I could show you. There is a whole new mindset now. We are training both adults and kids. And every year, the Diocese is audited for safe environment to be sure we are backgrounding and training people properly and every single year, we get a 100% clean audit.
  • The theme of young people is an obsession of mine – engaging youth and young adults is vital.
  • There is no simple solution – this is very complex and there is no easy fix.
  • We are all concerned about the past and the terrible things done to victims and how things were handled.
  • At the same time, the larger mission of the Church has to go forward – parish life, support for the poor, refugees and migrants, etc.
  • One good thing is that the media has brought this cancer to light.
  • People ask me, “Bishop, how do you stay standing strong?” I tell them is it is due first to God’s grace, then to my own conscience – I know what I will accept responsibility for and what I won’t, and then to the good people around me – the MRT included. They challenge me more than any other group.
  • I want to read to you from today’s office of readings – from a letter from St. Ignatius of Antioch to Polycarp:
    • Work together in harmony, struggle together, run together, suffer together, rest together, rise up together, as stewards, ministers and advisors of God. Let none of you prove a deserter.** Let your baptism be your armor, your faith your helmet, and your charity your sword.

Thus concluded the 5th Listening Session in the year of Our Lord 2019.

*The IRCP program was set up so that all claims came to the Catholic Center at 795 Main Street. That was the address on all ICRP correspondence and mailings. I know this because I saw it – stacks and stacks of claims arriving to the Chancery especially as the June 1, 2018 deadline approached. The claims were scanned onto a flash drive and then the flash drive and the hard copy claims were delivered to Randy White at the diocesan lawyers’ office. From there, they must have eventually been given to the IRCP judges, but I do not know if their format or content was altered by the lawyers. It was certainly not a survivor-to-judge kind of process – Chancery staff (particularly Bishop Grosz and Steve Timmel) and the diocesan legal staff (particularly Randy White and Lawlor Quinlan) were the established, constant intermediaries. Again, I know this because I saw it throughout all of March, April, May, June and early July of last year.

**Someone commented to me that perhaps this deserter quotation was intended by the Bishop for me. That may be the case, but it does not bother me. It is no longer hard for me to accept that he must think of me as a traitor and a deserter. To his mind, I am. But he does not know the freedom of conscience I now have or the deep, enduring, powerful peace I have in my soul. I could not betray my soul or desert my conscience.

3 thoughts on “Back on the Listening Circuit

  • Thanks again for keeping people informed about what’s going on at the listening sessions.

    John Hurley’s comments were very interesting and I hope he keeps us updated about the ongoing work of the MRT and its results.

    The local press had an enlightening piece on the possibility of bankruptcy and its implications. We’ll have to wait and see.

    What would you Siobhan like to see and what suggestions do you have as far as next steps?

    The bishop said he’s committed to a “new way of being church together.” I wonder what he means? How he intends to implement that? And how we will be able to tell that it’s not just talk but it’s becoming reality?


  • One of the 6 MRT points the two personal friends of the bishop reminded everyone about: “Greater involvement by women and laity in the Church.” The irony is rich. You are a leading lay voice in our diocese AND a woman. Yet, they completely ignore you. Thank you for providing such detailed reports for us. God bless you, Siobhan.


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