Group’s letter to Pope Francis requests Vatican inquiry, removal of Buffalo bishop

Buffalo News [Buffalo NY]

April 11, 2024

By Jay Tokasz

A group of local Catholics is asking Pope Francis to remove Bishop Michael W. Fisher as head of the Diocese of Buffalo, saying Fisher has provided no spiritual leadership to the faithful and is focused solely on the monetary concerns of a diocese reeling from clergy sex abuse lawsuits and a contentious Chapter 11 bankruptcy case in its fourth year.

A letter signed by Anthony Bonaventura, Marie Carrubba, Paul Eberz, Mike Liwicki and Mike Taheri was sent to the Vatican earlier this week and gave a scathing assessment of Fisher’s leadership of the diocese since his installation in 2021.

“Our diocese needs a bishop who is merciful and walks with his flock in good times and bad. Instead, our present bishop remains glued to the inside of the chancery. He has no presence in this community and has a misguided focus,” the letter states.

The letter criticized Fisher for providing “virtually no ministry or outreach to the poor,” while the diocese uses money donated from parishioners to feed the appetite of “hungry lawyers” who have made a collective $14.8 million in legal fees since the start of the bankruptcy in 2020.

Fisher said he had not received the letter at the chancery office but read a copy provided to him by a media outlet and said he was concerned because some things mentioned in it are not true.

He said he respects and understands the passion and love the letter writers and many other area Catholics have for their church communities and Catholic institutions.

But he objected to the characterization of him as an out-of-touch business manager only concerned about the bottom line.

“I’m a pastor at heart, so when I’m accused of just being focused on the money, that’s disheartening,” Fisher said in a telephone interview with The News.

He also said he has tried to be very present throughout the diocese by visiting all 160 parishes and celebrating weekly Masses at St. Joseph Cathedral and in parishes.

“I’ve been to all of the schools, and I go to them pretty regularly,” he said.

Pope Francis appointed Fisher, 66, as 15th bishop of the Buffalo Diocese on Dec. 1, 2020, in the middle of the Covid-19 pandemic. He was installed the next month.

A Baltimore native, Fisher was ordained to the priesthood in the Archdiocese of Washington, D.C., in 1990 and served in parishes for several years until becoming an administrator in the archdiocese in 2005. He was appointed an auxiliary bishop in Washington, D.C., in 2018.

Fisher took over in Buffalo nearly a year after the diocese had filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection. Early on, he pledged to help survivors of childhood sexual abuse heal, while also trying to restore trust in the diocese among 500,000 Catholics in Western New York.

Widespread anger and disenchantment over Bishop Richard J. Malone’s handling of abuse complaints led to his stepping down in 2019. Albany Bishop Edward B. Scharfenberger led the Buffalo Diocese in an interim capacity until Fisher’s arrival, and the diocese filed for bankruptcy under Scharfenberger.

Fisher also inherited Scharfenberger’s plan known as “Road to Renewal” that’s aimed at rejuvenating parish life while also accounting for a continuing decrease in the number of priests available to celebrate sacraments.

The renewal groups parishes into families and assigns a single pastor to a family. It is coming under fire as Mass times get cut and as church closings, largely due to financial constraints and poor attendance, are announced.

Fisher said Thursday that the work of the renewal would have needed to happen even if the diocese had not filed for Chapter 11.

“Some of the decisions, we can’t put them off, and we can’t not make them,” he said.

He called the renewal effort a more deliberate and consensus-building way to handle potential parish consolidations than simply mandating church closures.

The letter to the Vatican tapped into continuing discontent among many parishioners and some clergy about the state of the diocese in the wake of a scandal involving sex abuse allegations that had been covered up for decades and began spilling out publicly in 2018.

In addition to the sex abuse issues, the diocese and its parishes have been hammered financially by a Covid-19 pandemic that saw many loyal churchgoers drift away from the routine of weekly Mass attendance and not return – as well as by wider societal trends, such as smaller families, less interest in organized religion and local Catholics moving to other parts of the country.

The letter said that Fisher’s greatest harm is reducing the number of Masses available to Catholics, a move described as “misguided, outrageous and disrespectful to this community.”

The bishop’s parish restructuring efforts have “virtually strangled parish life and brought total chaos to all of the faith communities in our diocese,” the letter said.

The letter asked the pope to authorize an “official inquiry” into Fisher and the harm he has caused to parishioners.

Fisher said he doesn’t know what will happen with the letter at the Vatican but he would be fine with any kind of investigation.

In a phone interview, Taheri said he and the other signatories drafted the letter after reaching a level of frustration over the diocese’s constant talk of financial issues while providing reduced liturgical offerings during Holy Week and Easter, the high point of the Catholic liturgical calendar.

The group got together and prayed over the decision to send the letter, which went out by international mail and cost $35, said Taheri, an attorney who has publicly criticized the diocese in the past for turning its back on ministries for the poor and other issues. A copy of the letter was sent to Fisher, Taheri said.

“When he came here, he was welcomed, but he’s just been an irresponsible steward,” said Taheri, who attends daily Mass and continues to be involved as a volunteer with various Catholic ministries. “He just hasn’t carried the day spiritually or with the business issues.”

Liwicki said the central thrust of all of Fisher’s decisions seems to be about money, rather than ministry, and he was disappointed about how recent church and school closing announcements have been handled.

Fisher, he said, “has no direct presence in the Catholic community to support parishioners faced with the closure of Catholic institutions they have supported their entire lives.”

Lawyers said in court papers last fall the diocese and its parishes were prepared to pay at least $100 million toward a settlement of sex abuse claims in federal bankruptcy court.

Since then, the diocese has confirmed the pending closures of three churches and has put the diocese headquarters on Main Street on the market for $9.8 million. Also for sale are Christ the King Seminary in the Town of Aurora and the Buffalo State Newman Center on Elmwood Avenue.

Other parishes may close and additional properties be sold, Fisher said in a letter to Catholics in March.

A successful resolution of the bankruptcy case as soon as possible will require “faith, sacrifice, and a reshaping of the Church throughout our diocese,” Fisher said in the letter.