Catholic Diocese of Buffalo Will Submit to Government Oversight

New York Times [New York NY]

October 25, 2022

By Liam Stack

The Roman Catholic Diocese of Buffalo has agreed to submit to sweeping government oversight of its operations in a legal settlement reached on Tuesday with the New York attorney general, Letitia James, resolving a lawsuit that accused the church and its officials of a yearslong cover-up of sexual abuse.

The agreement, which is the first of its kind in New York, includes no financial penalties but instead mandates a series of structural reforms within the diocese, particularly regarding its handling of abuse allegations.

Under the deal, priests who have been credibly accused of abuse will be assigned an independent monitor with law enforcement experience to ensure they comply with a list of restrictions, which include a ban on watching pornography, performing priestly duties and having a post office box.

Those monitors will be overseen by Kathleen McChesney, a former high-ranking F.B.I. official who also led the child protection office at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. As part of the settlement, two former Buffalo bishops, Richard Malone and Edward Grosz, will also be banned for life from holding any fiduciary role in a charity registered in New York.

According to the suit, the two former bishops shielded more than two dozen accused priests from investigation by the Vatican, and allowed them to either retire or go on medical leave.

For years, the bishops were at the center of a series of scandals that unsettled local Catholics and led to extraordinary demands for their resignation. Bishop Malone was publicly accused by his former assistant of keeping a secret binder filled with the names of scores of priests who were accused of abuse. Separately, a diocesan official secretly taped conversations with Bishop Malone about a potential love triangle among two priests and a seminarian.

The diocese filed for federal bankruptcy in 2020, seeking financial protection after a 2019 state law allowed victims of past childhood sexual assault to sue.

“For far too long, the Buffalo Diocese and its leaders failed their most basic duty to guide and protect our children,” Ms. James said in a statement on Tuesday. “In choosing to defend the perpetrators of sexual abuse instead of defending the most vulnerable, the Buffalo Diocese and its leaders breached parishioners’ trust and caused many a crisis of faith.”

Ms. James described the arrangement laid out in the settlement as “a much-needed era of independent oversight and accountability” for the diocese, which includes roughly 600,000 Catholics in and around the state’s second-largest city.

The settlement brings an end to the first legal action taken against the Roman Catholic Church by New York State, which launched investigations into all eight of the state’s Catholic dioceses as part of a nationwide wave of abuse inquiries that began in 2018. The Buffalo suit was filed in November 2020. The attorney general’s seven other investigations remain ongoing.

“The settlement that the diocese and the New York attorney general have agreed to confirms that the rigorous policies and protocols the diocese has put in place over the past several years are the right ones to ensure that all young people and other vulnerable persons are safe and never at risk of abuse of any kind by a member of the clergy, diocesan employee, volunteer or member of a religious order serving in the Diocese of Buffalo,” Michael W. Fisher, the bishop of Buffalo, said in a statement.

The diocese said on Tuesday that neither Mr. Malone nor Mr. Grosz would comment on the settlement.

David Gibson, the director of the Fordham University Center on Religion and Culture, said it was “quite remarkable that a Catholic diocese or any religious organization would essentially allow government oversight of elements of its operations and personnel.”

Mr. Gibson said the deal reflected the profound weakness of the diocese’s position after years of high-profile scandals. But he said it also presented the church with an attractive opportunity by outsourcing a Sisyphean administrative task to outside monitors.

“Most dioceses do not have the resources to monitor priests who have been accused of abuse, and they don’t have the legal authority to do it,” said Mr. Gibson. “You can’t go tell your employee you’re going to put an ankle monitor on them.”

“If you’ve got 10 or 20 priests out there who have been accused of abuse, that’s a full-time job to keep track of those guys,” he added. “This solves a problem for the diocese.”

Judith Burns-Quinn, a leader of the Buffalo chapter of the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests, applauded the settlement as a step that could discourage sexual abuse in the future. But she said the church still had to face the darker parts of its recent history.

“The way they talk about this is, ‘This won’t happen again in the future,’ but we still have to talk about what happened in the past,” she said. “This affected all Catholics.”

Ms. James’s lawsuit employed a novel legal strategy that accused the diocese and its fiduciary officers of violating the state law that governs religious charities by failing to follow the church’s policies on the handling of sexual abuse allegations.

Those policies, which require that abusers be removed from active ministry and have their cases referred to the Vatican, were introduced in 2002 after a series of investigative reports into clergy sexual abuse by The Boston Globe.

Mr. Malone, the former Buffalo bishop banned from charity work under the settlement, held a senior position in the Diocese of Boston when The Globe uncovered the sex abuse crisis there in 2002. He was later installed as the bishop of Buffalo, where the diocese careened from crisis to crisis under his tenure.

He resigned from that role in 2019 after a Vatican investigation into his mishandling of the abuse crisis; the diocese filed for bankruptcy the next year. In its bankruptcy filing, it cited the sheer number of lawsuits from people who said they were sexually abused by diocesan priests as children.

Mr. Grosz, the other former bishop banned from charitable work by the settlement, retired in 2020 after 30 years as an auxiliary bishop with the Buffalo Diocese. For 27 of those years, he was the bishop in charge of handling allegations of wrongdoing by priests.

In the 2020 suit, prosecutors accused Bishops Malone and Grosz of using bureaucratic sleight of hand to protect more than two dozen diocesan priests who had been accused of harming children.

Instead of following church policy and referring the accused priests to a Vatican investigation that might result in their expulsion from the priesthood, the bishops classified the men as “unassignable,” a category that allowed them to retire with benefits or go on medical leave.

That kept the priests on the diocesan balance sheet, which prosecutors said constituted a misuse of charitable funds and an abrogation of fiduciary duty.

Bishop Malone became the target of widespread ire within the diocese after his former administrative assistant, Siobhan O’Connor, came forward with evidence that he had doctored a list of credibly accused abusers that the diocese released in March 2018.

The list released to the public had 42 names on it, but earlier drafts contained 117 names, dozens of which were removed before the list was published. Bishop Malone kept the redacted names in a secret black binder that he hid in his closet.

“It is a real fulfillment of hope that there is a settlement,” Ms. O’Connor said on Tuesday. “I have hope that change might occur now.”

In a separate incident, the bishop’s trusted secretary and vice chancellor, the Rev. Ryszard Biernat, secretly recorded a conversation in which Bishop Malone described another priest, Rev. Jeffrey Nowak, as “dangerous” and “a sick puppy.”

The bishop said he was concerned because Father Nowak appeared to be obsessed with a former seminary student with whom Father Biernat had recently bought a home, according to a real estate listing in The Buffalo News.

Father Biernat and the seminarian maintained that their relationship was platonic, and Father Nowak, through a lawyer, denied any wrongdoing. But on the recording, Bishop Malone can be heard worrying that the situation looked like a love triangle that had convinced “everyone in the office” that “this could be the end for me as bishop.”