Complex Job, Troubled Flock Await Buffalo's Next Bishop

By Jay Tokasz
Buffalo News [Buffalo NY]
December 8, 2003

Trust in church leaders eroded amid scandal and secrecy.

A priest shortage in area parishes is worse than anticipated and continues to grow.

Catholic institutions struggle to survive in a time of population losses and economic uncertainty.

And Catholicism itself, while thriving in area suburbs, no longer is a way of life among most city dwellers.

When the next bishop for Western New York's more than 700,000 Catholics steps into the post, sometime in 2004, he will be given the responsibility of steering one of the country's largest dioceses through a pivotal time in the history of the U.S. Catholic Church.

The local demands alone are daunting enough: The bishop oversees the biggest corporation in Western New York, a sprawling network of churches, schools, colleges, religious communities, hospitals and human service agencies.

But the new bishop will face an added burden, unlike anything his 12 predecessors experienced.

Instead of gaining credibility by virtue of his position, he will have to try to build it with a flock reeling from the church's handling of a nationwide sexual abuse scandal.

The sexual abuse scandal has crystallized a huge disconnect between bishops who are "whistling in the dark" and lay people who are not paying any attention, said Jay Dolan, an emeritus professor at the University of Notre Dame who has studied the church for decades.

"It's an important point in the history of the church. The whole sex abuse issue has really shaken the confidence of people in the leadership," Dolan said.

He predicts the hierarchy will become irrelevant if it doesn't begin to listen better and advocate on behalf of American Catholics.

To many younger Catholics, the hierarchy already is irrelevant, said Robert R. Newton, director of the Church in the 21st Century Initiative, a project led by Boston College in response to the sexual abuse scandal.

"There are very few Catholics now who do something because the bishop says it's right or wrong," he said.

Nonetheless, whoever succeeds Bishop Henry J. Mansell in Buffalo likely will be cut from a similar cloth.

The Congregation of Bishops and Pope John Paul II prefer candidates who cling to traditional church teaching on controversial issues such as artificial birth control and maintaining an all-male, celibate priesthood.

Most bishops, including Mansell, have refused to say much on these topics, even though polls consistently show that most American Catholics disagree strongly with the church's official stances.

"They're all yes men," Dolan said. "Nobody will stick their neck out and say what they really think," said Dolan, whose latest book, "In Search of American Catholicism," explores how power has shifted in the U.S. church among lay people, clergy and the pope in response to historical events.

Nearly half of the Catholics polled in two recent national surveys - one by Gallup, the other by Zogby International - gave the country's bishops a negative job approval rating.

And the scandal isn't disappearing anytime soon.

In an article published in "America," a Jesuit magazine, Patrick J. Schiltz predicted it will only get worse before it gets better. More lawsuits will be filed on behalf of people who claim to have been abused by clergy, and those lawsuits could end up being more expensive, wrote Schiltz, a law professor and associate dean at the University of St. Thomas Law School in Minneapolis. He has represented dioceses and other denominations in more than 500 clergy sexual abuse cases.

The new bishop in Buffalo will walk into at least one lawsuit when he arrives, involving a Florida man who claims he was abused as a teenage altar boy in a Dunkirk parish by a former Buffalo priest who recently resigned from a parish in Florida.

Mixed reviews for Mansell

Locally, Mansell has received mixed reviews for his leadership on the sexual abuse issue and other matters.

Some Catholics say his tenure is a model for the succeeding bishop, while others hope for a leader with a vastly different management style.

While the diocese waits for a new bishop, it will be led by an administrator - a priest of the diocese, at least 35 years old and with at least five years in the priesthood, selected by the College of Consultors.

The consulting group of seven diocesan priests and one religious order priest will elect the administrator by Dec. 22, within eight days of Mansell's installation as archbishop of the Archdiocese of Hartford.

The administrator then will lead and govern the diocese for however long it takes for a new bishop to be appointed by the pope. The administrator does not have the power to open or close parishes, nor can he ordain new priests.

Whatever his style, the new bishop will have his hands full very quickly.

One of his primary tasks: either finding more priests for the diocese's 265 parishes or closing some churches.

Since 1990, the Buffalo diocese has lost 245 diocesan and religious order priests due to retirement or death. As of mid-October, 401 priests are active in the diocese. The median age of diocesan priests is 63, and only 107 of them are under 56.

Mansell, however, refused to close parishes, even as the population of Catholics in the diocese, which comprises eight counties, shrunk to 709,258 this year from 755,427 in 1995, when he took over.

Only one parish, St. Peter's Church in Carrollton, was shut during that time - a closing planned under former Bishop Edward D. Head.

Right up until the end of his tenure here, Mansell worked diligently to forestall a parish closing. Just last week, he persuaded the Paulist Fathers and Brothers to take over Corpus Christi from the Franciscan friars, who were scheduled to leave the parish at the end of the year.

Workload a concern

The unwillingness to shutter parishes that draw only handfuls of people to weekend Masses endeared Mansell to Catholics who love traditional old European-style churches.

But some priests say it also has left many pastors overwhelmed, both in the city and in the suburbs, where some bustling parishes have only one priest to handle upwards of 3,000 members.

They're concerned that the quality of the Mass and the sacraments is diminishing throughout the diocese because of an inability to set priorities.

Asking one priest to cover three parishes in the city, for example, is unrealistic, said the Rev. Francis Mazur, pastor of St. Gerard's parish. "One of the things we have to face is the clergy personnel situation. We've got to seriously talk about collaboration and consolidation of parishes," Mazur said.

Many lay Catholics also view a diocesan restructuring as inevitable.

"The church isn't buildings," said Robert M. Greene, a local lawyer and chairman of the Bishop's Council of the Laity, an advisory group. "It has to be dynamic. It has to bring the faith to the people."

A new bishop also will have to decide where to focus the diocese's financial resources.

The diocese controls about $130 million in total assets, but like most institutions, it suffered large losses in the stock market in recent years.

The financial troubles led to layoffs at the diocesan central offices this spring. And Mansell determined this year that the diocese could no longer afford to subsidize Turner-Carroll High School and several elementary schools in Cheektowaga, Niagara Falls and Batavia.

Mansell has often talked about the importance of Catholic institutions, such as hospitals, Catholic Charities and Christ the King Seminary, in the fabric of Western New York, and he has been lauded for keeping them strong in turbulent economic times.

Two dozen seminarians are currently studying for the priesthood at the East Aurora seminary, a campus that could accommodate dozens more. While many dioceses have closed their seminaries, preferring to send priest candidates to national seminary programs, Christ the King continues to hang on.

Mansell is as supportive of the seminary as a bishop could be, said the Rev. Richard Siepka, president, who hopes the next bishop follows suit.

"I can't imagine a bishop who's not thrilled to have a seminary in his own diocese," said Siepka.

And a group of bright, practical and realistic priests-in-training awaits the new bishop, he said.

"They're certainly enthusiastic. Even in light of all the scandals, they're more concerned than ever that the church locally needs happy, holy, healthy priests," he said. "They're going to be out there to do the work that needs to be done."

Interfaith effort sought

The area's growing interfaith community will be eager to make inroads with the new leader of the faith traditionally with the largest presence by far in Western New York.

Members of the interfaith movement often struggled to get Mansell more involved in their efforts.

"It's important in the religious community to have an established relationship and talk about a wide variety of things," said the Rev. Stan Bratton, a Presbyterian minister and co-director of the Network of Religious Communities. "From Pope John Paul II, interfaith and ecumenical cooperation is important."

By meeting regularly with people of other faiths, the new bishop will be able to head off misunderstandings and become aware of the growing diversity of Western New York, said Bratton.

Also awaiting the diocese's 13th bishop is a varied flock of Catholics that includes traditionalists, newer immigrants and liberals pushing for changes.

The new bishop will be called on by pro-life advocates to condemn abortion and urge Catholic lawmakers to vote according to the doctrines of the church.

At the same time, he will be asked by reform groups to convene a discussion on topics such as priestly celibacy and the role of women in the church.

Catholic church scholars doubt a new bishop, at least not one selected under the current pope, John Paul II, would consent to the latter.

Critics say the highly secretive process used by the bishops and the pope to find their bishop candidates is part of the problem.

"The church has tended to mimic the organizational model of the surrounding society. We're still in the monarchical (model), a couple centuries behind," said Newton. "People are looking for a spiritual leader. They're not looking for a CEO or a prince of the church."

A Buffalo priest adds: "The gene pool for bishops is not very big. There's certain types of personalities who are on that track. You're not going to get a big variety of approaches to the church."

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