Pope Francis Asked to Restore Pay, Benefits of Priest Accused of Abuse
By Jay Tokasz
May 14, 2020
|The Rev. Samuel Venne (Diocese of Buffalo's 1995 Priests' Pictorial Directory)|
A Williamsville attorney is asking Pope Francis to intervene and reinstate the pay and benefits of a priest who was suspended from ministry due to substantiated allegations of child sex abuse.
The lawyer, Michael S. Taheri, said in a letter to the pontiff that there was no “legal or canonical basis” for Bishop Edward B. Scharfenberger to terminate pay and benefits for the Rev. Samuel Venne.
Scharfenberger on May 1 cut off monthly pay and benefits for Venne and 22 other priests accused of abuse or misconduct. The move was part of negotiations in federal bankruptcy court with a creditor’s committee representing more than 200 plaintiffs who alleged child sex abuse by priests and sued the diocese under the Child Victims Act.
But according to church law, Scharfenberger is obligated to provide financial support for all Buffalo Diocese priests, even those who have been removed from ministry due to substantiated allegations of child sex abuse.
Canon 1350 of church law states: “Unless it concerns dismissal from the clerical state, when penalties are imposed on a cleric, provision must always be made so that he does not lack those things necessary for his decent support.”
The 23 priests no longer receive church salaries, diocese-provided health care coverage and, in some cases, diocese-provided room and board.
Venne, 77, said in a letter to Scharfenberger that he has diabetes and takes multiple medications he can’t afford now that his only source of income is a $485 per month Social Security check. Taheri said a parishioner is allowing Venne to stay in his home.
In his letter to the pope, Taheri called Scharfenberger’s conduct against the 23 priests “unconscionable and shameful.”
“His behavior is like that of a schoolyard bully picking on one of the most vulnerable populations – the elderly and frail who, for the most part, lack the financial resources to survive absent these benefits,” Taheri said.
While Venne and the other 22 priests are prohibited from performing priestly functions in public, they have not been dismissed from the clerical state and are still considered to be ordained priests.
A diocese has a responsibility to give even its suspended priests decent housing, health care and “the necessities of life,” said J. Michael Ritty, a canon lawyer near Albany.
“It’s not meant to be a free meal ticket. If some person is placed on leave, and is able to work, certainly some consideration could be given to that,” Ritty said. “There’s also consideration to Social Security that’s given to the older priests. At the same time, it is up to the diocese to take care of them.”
Some of the 23 priests have found other unemployment, but most of the priests are retired or near retirement age.
In his letter to the pope, Taheri, who is not a canon lawyer, said Scharfenberger “ignored his canonical obligations” under section 538-3 of canon law. That canon states: “Attentive to the norms established by the conference of bishops, the diocesan bishop must provide suitable support and housing for a retired pastor.”
But when Scharfenberger sought protection from creditors for the diocese in February, the laws that guide the operation of the Catholic Church immediately became secondary to a higher authority: the federal bankruptcy code.
“There’s no canon law that overcomes the bankruptcy code,” said attorney Steve Boyd, who represents more than 100 plaintiffs who sued the diocese under the Child Victims Act. “In bankruptcy, you’re allowed to spend money on anything that furthers the mission of your organization. The fact is priests that don’t say Mass, priests that are credibly accused and have been suspended – they don’t further the mission.”
The Buffalo Diocese filed for bankruptcy protection on Feb. 28. Two weeks later, a trustee for the bankruptcy court appointed a creditors committee of five men and two women that is tasked with investigating the assets, liabilities and operations of the diocese and negotiating settlement terms.
The committee and diocese negotiated to stop compensating the suspended priests now, with the expectation that the bankruptcy court would reject any expenses that don’t further the diocese’s mission, Boyd said.
The Rochester Diocese, which filed for bankruptcy protection last September and is further along in the reorganization process, also agreed to stop compensating priests who had been suspended due to credible sex abuse allegations.
Scharfenberger told the suspended priests in an April 23 letter that the diocese will do what it can to assist them “in keeping with our Christian care and concern for you, as well as our commitment to fulfilling certain canonical obligations to which you are entitled, despite your status.”
It’s not clear exactly what help will be provided. Taheri said this week that no one from the diocese has reached out to Venne and no arrangements have been made for him to have health care or receive a monthly stipend.
Ritty said a bishop’s duty to provide decent support for his priests would not simply go away because of a bankruptcy filing.
“Canon law and the civil law system are supposed to work together in the best way possible,” Ritty said. “At the same time, the church cannot give up its obligations, even in light of some civil law. Thankfully, in the United States that doesn’t occur very often.”