by PATRICK J. BUECHI
Thu, Jan 17th 2019 11:00 am
Bishop Richard J. Malone speaks to the members of the Diocesan Pastoral Council during a Dec. 1 meeting at the Catholic Center in downtown Buffalo. The meeting allowed the bishop to address the concerns of the diverse regions of the diocese. Listening to the bishop is council member Elizabeth Schachtner.
(Patrick J. Buechi/Staff)
"Victim's first." That is the commitment of Bishop Richard J. Malone and all the bishops of New York. "Our principle in anything we say or do, it has to be victims first. That's the first concern. I tell that to our priests."
Bishop Malone made this statement Dec. 1, while meeting with the Diocesan Pastoral Council, a team of more than 30 people representing the various geographical, cultural and age demographics of the Diocese of Buffalo, who engage and advise the bishop on particular diocesan initiatives, emerging local needs, and new ways to foster parish vitality.
The December meeting dealt primarily with the priest abuse crisis in the diocese. Bishop Malone opened the meeting by relating the events of a USCCB meeting two weeks earlier. The Holy See did not allow a desired vote on action steps to fight abuse. Instead, Pope Francis has called for a February meeting of the presidents from all the bishop's conferences around the world to address protection of children and young people. Despite the lack of a vote, the USCCB meeting still had a robust discussion of child protection, the bishop said.
"We have to tackle this once and for all, and put in place the proper steps and protocols, along with a constant call to holiness and conversion to the whole Church," Bishop Malone told the council.
The two-hour meeting can best be described as casual. The bishop seemed to know everyone's name and allowed everyone to speak freely. "Everything is on the table," he said. When one council member, a dairy farmer, asked a question, the bishop asked back, "How are the cows?"
The bishop explained the process of removing a priest who is accused of abuse. Once a claim has been made, an investigation follows to determine if the allegation is manifestly false or frivolous. "That's a very low bar," he said.
If the claim is not frivolous, then the priest or deacon is put on administrative leave. The diocese will make an announcement on the diocesan website. Priests on leave still receive a monthly stipend and health insurance, and have access to the Diocesan Counseling Center. Then the case goes to the Diocesan Review Board, where two professional investigators speak to witnesses and perform thorough investigations. The bishop sits in on Review Board meetings, and listens to the board's recommendations.
"The people who do this are very, very committed," Bishop Malone said.
One council member wanted to know if the chancery could better communicate how the Review Board comes to their decision. The bishop said he will bring this suggestion to the board.
Questions also arose about funding for the Independent Reconciliation and Compensation Program, which offers monetary settlements for abuse victims. Funds come from self-insurance liability, investment reserves, and the sale of diocesan properties such as the Bishop's Residence on Oakland Place in Buffalo. No money will come from Catholic Charities or Upon This Rock capitol campaign, which exist as separate corporations. The bishop gave his guarantee.
Other questions involved the acceptance of exonerated priests back into the parishes and the inclusion of non-Catholics in to decision making boards. There was also a request to deal with all public communications through the lens of Christ, compassion and love. The bishop mentioned he is putting an emphasis on better communication through social media. "I hear you. Point well taken," he said.
Dennis Mahaney, director of the Office of Evangelization and Parish Life, distributed a document for parishes dealing with the sudden removal of a pastor. The document outlines the procedure for a needs assessment, followed by accurate communication to parishioners and other stakeholders.
"It's getting initial transition support for whoever is left there at the moment having to field all the concerns, anxieties and questions," explained Mahaney.
Ed Reska has been a part of the Pastoral Council since the 1980s, serving under four bishops. He remains involved because he feels it is effective, and he believes in Bishop Malone.
"I really support the bishop," he said. "I think when he came to the diocese, he didn't know everything that was going on. He's made mistakes. He's admitted to the mistakes, and he's willing to do what he's supposed to. This is something I think that as Christians and as Catholics we should also keep in mind, because Christ did come up with the seven sacraments and one of them was the sacrament of reconciliation. The bishop may have made a mistake, he admits to making the mistake, and I think he's entitled to be forgiven and given the chance to rectify everything."
Another long-term member, Walter Garrow, agrees.
"You see the earnestness and the honest desire to make things better," Garrow said. "There is a trust in the bishop. It's not being left alone. It's being addressed. This process is now fully enacted, I think we're going to see a lot more trust and as long as the parishioners now have an opportunity to learn and see it in practice, it could increase confidence and trust."
Ryleigh Myers is only 16. She is the youngest council member and represents the concerns of the youth. When she hears about child abuse within the Church, her instinct isn't to run away.
"If anything, it makes me want to get involved. I want to help in any way I can. I want to make sure everything is transparent and that I know every piece of information I can get so I can have a clear and non-biased view of what is actually happening in the Church," she said.