Listening Sessions produce recommendations, concerns about the diocese

by Patrick J. Buechi
Fri, Aug 2nd 2019 03:00 pm

Bishop Richard J. Malone has spent the better part of the past year hearing from many different people including protestors and supporters. During the last few months, he's been actively listening to parishioners and the faithful of the diocese as they make their concerns known.

Bishop Malone, in conjunction with the Presbyteral Council, vicars forane and the Movement to Restore Trust, is hosting a series of Listening Sessions across the diocese. The sessions are designed for the bishop to hear the concerns of the engaged parishioners and for them to offer recommendations for initiatives regarding pastoral care, spiritual care and ministry. The bishop has scheduled seven sessions this summer.

"The goal of the listening sessions is to give people a chance to surface what they're concerns are - good or bad - but also focusing on hope and what we do to make sure we don't ever have another victim abuse wave such as we've seen, and that we have a real partnership between the laity and the clergy," explained Nancy Nielsen, MD, Ph.D., a member of the Movement to Restore Trust, which organized the format of the Listening Sessions.

 A misunderstanding at the first meeting made some think these sessions would be open forums, with the bishop answering direct questions. That was never the plan according to Dennis Mahaney, director of Evangelization and Parish Life for the Diocese of Buffalo.

"He was instructed by the Movement to Restore Trust 'Only listen. We don't want you to have to justify, argue, explain. You just listen.' That's the bishop's only job," Mahaney said.

"The idea is for him to really hear from people and to allow the faithful to really say, unedited unvarnished, what's on their mind," added Nielsen. "And there's a lot on their mind. But, these were not intended to be open mic sessions. They're not intended as a protest."

Nielsen and Mahaney sat down to explain and review the Listening Sessions after the first four have been completed. The two are on the same page regarding the goals and results of these sessions. They often finish each other's sentences.

Nielsen points to Father Norbert Orsolits admitting, back in February 2018, to sexually abusing "dozens" of children as the beginning of the local crisis.

"That is the heartbreak and disappointment and anger over abuse of children. There is no question that is what stimulated what has been happening in our diocese for the last year and a half," she said. "People are clear. They never want to see this happen again."

Some of the concerns participants in the Listening Sessions have expressed have to do with young people, the fact that fewer younger people are attending church, and what will the Church do in the midst of this crisis to move forward.

"There's a lot of concern about where the young people are, why are they not coming to Church, and lots of talk about, 'Well, it was other things, but this has not helped,'" Nielsen said.

Mahaney said families are hypersensitive to the possibility of their children being threatened.

"They don't trust anyone in the Church anymore. There's just a major loss of credibility that is not only affecting young people's perception, but families. So, we're losing a lot in the midst of this scandal," he said.

The Listening Sessions saw anywhere from 80 to 225 people gather at tables to answer a series of open-ended questions: How do you feel about the Church right now? What concerns you? What do you wish for? Do you have hope? What fills you with hope? and How can your church, and this bishop in particular, best help or assist us collectively with this crisis?

Comments from the public include: the Church administration is closed and breeds dysfunction; a bishop should be selected, not elected; increase the role of women in the healing process. The public has asked for an increased role and participation of laity at parish and diocesan levels, and in formation. They've also asked for a mechanism to report problems. In considering the victims, the public commented that families feel guilt for trusting the offender; children should never be alone with priests; and victims don't want money, they want to hear "Sorry" and they want change to ensure this never happens again.

Notes from the Listening Sessions are available from the MRT website (

"One of the recommendations was, why don't you just come out and do a Mass in different vicariates on occasion. (Bishop Malone) said, he's actually in favor of that. He's going to build that into his schedule," said Mahaney.

Nielsen said she has been "very moved" by some of the ideas that have come out. "For example, at one of the listening sessions, a letter was read that really went at, 'We don't just talk about we're sorry.'"
"Or money," Mahaney interrupts.

"Or money. That's right. We want a visible sign of a remorseful repentance. The suggestion that was in the letter was very interesting. It was, 'Why don't we strip all our altars bare, as we do during Lent, for a year as a visible sign ofsorrow and repentance.' I think people want reality. They don't want empty talk."

Mahaney pointed out that the Listening Sessions have revealed how much the public does not know about the working of the diocesan chancery.

"They've said this at all the sessions, a lot of the misinformation or confusion has been media driven. People get that story and they don't have any balancing, so they run with it," he said.

Mahaney and Nielsen are on the Joint Implementation Team, Bishop Malone's idea to foster collaboration between the diocese and MRT to prioritize and implement the group's recommendations for reform. The JIT has been meeting since April. 

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