Report on Listening Sessions Conducted Across the Diocese

Wed, Oct 2nd 2019 03:00 pm

In this report, I begin by expressing my sincere gratitude to the many Catholics who participated in seven listening sessions which were held across the diocese in recent months.  I am deeply appreciative of the leaders of the Movement to Restore Trust for their prompting and help in organizing these opportunities.  I am convinced that actively listening to one another is an essential part of the way forward for this diocese.  At these sessions, I promised to share what I've heard, and more importantly, how I plan to respond in a way consistent with my duty as shepherd and with all of you as servant leaders of the people of this diocese. 

I have heard the anguish of faithful, conscientious and committed Catholics who turn on the news and hear one disturbing story after another about our Church.  It breaks my heart to realize that we have lost credibility with so many of our people in so few months.  I have heard that this loss of credibility was caused, in part, by a sometimes slow and insufficient response on the part of the diocese to claims of sex abuse.  In this message, I express again my sincere apology for any of my own failures to move more decisively, and I resolve to do everything in my power to restore the confidence entrusted to me.  This is not a time for me to defend the errors of the past. This is a time for action going forward. 

Since the Second Vatican Council we have affirmed the nature of the Church as being in constant need of reform.  In these listening sessions, I have heard expressions of bewilderment, discouragement, frustration, betrayal, alienation and utter dismay at what has gone on in our Church for many decades with regard to the clergy abuse scandal.  I have heard how the credibility of our Church, and my credibility as your bishop, has been damaged as stories of abuse past and present have been exposed by the media.  In this brief summary of our summer conversations, I will highlight what I heard, share some of the immediate changes that we have already made, and point to more extensive reforms that we will work on together in the months ahead.

I have heard many call for stronger leadership, integrity, accountability, transparency and co-responsibility from me and from all of us.  At each meeting, I have expressed my desire to respond to victims and survivors of clergy abuse, while maintaining my commitment to continue with you the essential work of the Church.  In the course of these listening sessions, I have heard several consistent observations and concerns, which include:

  • Dismay over how the evidence of sex abuse in the past could have been covered up by so many in positions of trust and leadership
  • Exasperation at consistently hearing things first from the media, without a full and timely explanation from the diocese
  • Concern that funds contributed for specific purposes such as upon this rock and catholic charities not be used to pay abuse settlements
  • Considerable concern expressed over the decline of catholic education, faith formation and outreach to families, youth and those alienated from the church
  • Concern that pastoral care for those wounded is needed beyond financial compensation
  • Demand for immediate accountability for clergy who commit any act of abuse
  • Support for innocent priests who are currently serving in demoralizing circumstances, and care for those who have been exonerated after their reputations have been unfortunately publicly blemished
  • Concern that the abuse scandal will lead to a complete loss of credibility and the financial failure of many catholic institutions
  • The need for increased accountability, transparency and lay leadership throughout the Church at every level
  • Greater access to the bishop by the people of the diocese
  • Insufficient information about the process, criteria and disposition of claims of clergy abuse
  • Appreciation for the bishop's willingness to come forward and take responsibility despite apparent decades of inaction prior to his appointment as bishop
  • Need for the bishop to admit the total scope of the problem, and act to ensure that it does not recur
  • Concern over the screening process and formation of seminarians
  • A blend of scorn and gratitude expressed toward the media for uncovering and persisting in exposing the scope of the abuse scandal

The recommendations (some of which are already being done) included:

  • Provide peer support groups where survivors can extend emotional care for fellow victims
  • Continue listening sessions by the bishop on a regular basis
  • Commit to more pastoral visits by the bishop to parishes across the diocese on a regular basis
  • Urge pastors also to hold listening sessions in each parish
  • Greater lay involvement in oversight and formation at the seminary
  • More stringent screening of candidates for the priesthood
  • Continued formation, mentoring and supervision for priests for a prescribed time after ordination
  • Create incentives for priests to live in community for sharing of support and fraternal accountability
  • Provide proactive support for priests to live healthier lives and lessen the burden of administration and other non-sacramental or pastoral duties
  • Restore priests falsely accused in a public way
  • Provide support and compassion to all priests, including those rightly accused
  • Facilitate a public pledge of integrity and accountability from priests and deacons at a diocesan gathering of the faithful
  • Strengthen lay participation in parish governance - through revived, reauthorized and refocused pastoral and finance councils
  • Conduct a conspicuous act of remorse for the many wrongs done in our name as a public confession and consecration of the diocese
  • Facilitate circles of restorative justice where offender and victim might be supported to confront each other and be reconciled

We have already begun to make changes in the past several months including the following:

  • Engaged the nationally-respected Leadership Roundtable to implement further actions to foster enhanced integrity, accountability and transparency
  • Established an Independent Reconciliation and Compensation Program for victims
  • Published a current list of priests placed on administrative leave due to substantiated accusations of misconduct
  • Established an independent Office for Professional Responsibility
  • Established an Independent Review Board
  • Developed a policy and procedure for handling misconduct with adults by clergy
  • Adopted a new Code of Pastoral Conduct based on that of the Archdiocese of New York
  • Increased availability of both bishops to meeting with victim/survivors
  • Maintained 100% compliance rating in external audits for protection of children according to the Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People
  • Continued training and background checks for over 45,000 persons - employees and volunteers across the diocese
  • Expanded publication of support accessible to victims and their families
  • Expanded clergy training in the area of sexual abuse, including trauma training
  • Expanded lay participation on the diocesan finance council
  • Expanded transparency in diocesan financial reporting
  • Continue sending all cases of substantiated clergy misconduct against minors to Rome for final adjudication
  • Authorized expansion of a third-party misconduct reporting service for any complaint of misconduct including all diocesan personnel, even including the bishops
  • Completed the review of claims of victims of sex abuse filed through the Diocesan Independent Reconciliation and Compensation Program
  • Ensured that all contributions to Catholic Charities, Upon This Rock, employee pensions, Catholic parishes and schools would be protected for the use intended by donors

In each session, I reminded our people that the Diocese of Buffalo has a proven record of protecting children since 2002.  Additionally, there has been no substantiated claim of sexual abuse of minors against a priest ordained in the last 30 years.

I further commit myself to:

  • Form action teams around the key areas of concern which were expressed at the listening sessions: youth, families, Catholic schools, parish structures, co-responsibility in diocesan leadership, and priestly formation; expedite both immediate reforms and long-term innovations in church policy and procedures.  These teams will include lay experts, along with clergy and representatives of parish leadership and diocesan support staff
  • Encourage the establishment of independent survival and advocacy groups for victims of clergy abuse
  • Require pastors to establish pastoral councils
  •  Urge pastors to convene regular listening sessions in each parish
  • Call upon the priests and people of our diocese to join in a public display of penitence for Lent in 2020
  • Approve a new strategic plan for Catholic schools that will address affordability and sustainability (this is in process)
  • Implement all reasonable recommendations for greater integrity and accountability, lay leadership and co-responsibility in the Church  
  • Increase lay leadership in all diocesan consultative bodies
  • Gather leaders of the diocese in 2020 to consider ways to move the diocese beyond this time of "breakdown," and plan a strategy for "breakthrough" in a conversation which will continue in the coming year and involve all parishes and vicariates
  • Propose recommendations to Christ the King Seminary for enriching formation of those studying for the priesthood which can include greater lay involvement, pastoral experience, spiritual direction and continued formation beyond ordination
  • Encourage more lay involvement in parish administration (e.g. business managers and parish pastoral administrators)
  • Set up a regular schedule of pastoral visits around the diocese for the remainder of my tenure as bishop, and conduct another round of listening sessions in 2020

I welcome and need the support of the priests and deacons, religious and lay ecclesial ministers, and all concerned people of our Church in this effort to restore credibility and confidence.  I ask you to hold me accountable for these priorities as we move forward.  As always, I welcome your prayers for the remainder of my term as bishop of Buffalo. 

I want to close by conveying a humble but abiding sense of hope.  It has often been said that the most convincing proof of God's presence in the Church is evidenced by its very existence for so many centuries, despite its being led by such a frail humanity.  While we share in this time of profound and sadly self-inflicted suffering, we live in hope.  This hope is powered by our confidence in a faithful Father, the redemption won by Jesus Christ, and the guidance of the Holy Spirit who calls and converts us each day. St. Paul noted, it is when we are most weak that God exhibits great power in our midst (2 Cor. 12: 9-10). 

As we move forward, I invite you to continue to pray with me as we did at each of the listening sessions: O Merciful Father, Your Son in Love stretched out your hands upon the cross to embrace us.  Embrace and heal our brothers and sisters who carry the wounds of abuse inflicted upon them.  Heal Your Church broken by this betrayal of trust.  Cleanse and sanctify Your Clergy that they may radiate the selfless love of Your Son.
Thank you for your steadfast commitment to Christ and His saving mission in our diocese.

Most Rev. Richard J. Malone
Bishop of Buffalo