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"I Come as a Healer" - Words from the New Leader of the Diocese of Buffalo

In case you missed it: Last week, Richard Malone resigned from his position as Bishop of the Diocese of Buffalo, and Bishop Edward Scharfenberger of Albany was appointed as Apostolic Administrator. After more than a year of turmoil in Buffalo, these events engendered relief and celebration by many people, including me.


Bishop Ed (who apparently prefers to be referred to by his first name) began his first day on the job with an hour-long press conference, and I have to say - I was impressed.


I was going to write a post highlighting some key moments from Bishop Ed’s opening statement. However, after five minutes of listening, I had written down pretty much everything he had said, so I decided a transcript might be better. Personally, I always prefer to hear from primary sources, not just the quotes that a particular author finds most important. So, I figure you might as well. (And let’s be honest, anyone reading this blog probably knows by now that I’m not great at brevity.)


So, here’s my best attempt at a transcript of Bishop Ed’s opening words at the press conference, followed by a few of my own thoughts. Hopefully I’ll be able to get to highlights of the Q&A time soon as well, but I’ll make that a separate post. (Since the bishop's comments were delivered extemporaneously, there were a fair number of revisions and interjections in his speech. I have removed those to make this easier to digest in written form.)


You can watch the whole thing for yourself here: Diocese of Buffalo Press Conference.


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"Thank you so much. My family just got a little bigger!


As you know, I’m the bishop of the Diocese of Albany. I’ve been there since April 10, 2014, and we have about 300,000 Catholic people there too - a large diocese, almost the size of the state of Massachusetts. But now I have 700,000 more folks, and I like to think of you all as family as well.


I feel a little bit like the neighbor down the block, and I realize that this family has been suffering quite a bit in recent months and years. My heart just goes out to you, and what I see is a need for a tremendous amount of healing, honest conversation, openness.


I just got back, as you know, from what is known as an ad limina visit, in which bishops from various regions of the United States visit with the Holy Father. And I think of our meeting with Pope Francis. The bishops from New York State were with him, and I remember that one of the first things he said, as he looked at each and every one of us, he said, “We’re family. I would like to encourage frank conversation. Do not be afraid. Speak what’s on your mind. Speak what’s in your heart.” And he said something which I thought was very humble on his part: “You know, I don’t understand everything about the United States, about what you’re dealing with. I know that you suffer quite a bit. I know that you find that it’s been very, very difficult ministering as bishops to families that are hurting. But I want you to be able to speak from your heart.”


That is the tone I would like to establish, right here, right now.


I would also say I’m very thankful for all of the members of the press and the media that are here. I highly respect your position as professionals, and I thank you for the work that you have done. I think in many ways we would not be where we are today - and we still have a lot of work to do to go forward - but the revelations that have been so painful, that have been so difficult for us to face up to because they were so shocking (and I am speaking not just of Albany but of the Church of the United States and also around the world) would not have been possible without the work that you are doing. So I really welcome your collaboration in a spirit of openness and dialogue and to know that I am available to you. I hope that you also will feel very comfortable in your conversations with me as well.


That having been said, the work I’m appointed for is called an “apostolic administrator.” And the work of any administrator is only as good as his advisors or her advisors. It’s so important to have good collaboration, and I am encouraging that, particularly cooperation among clergy and laity in the spirit of Vatican II. That’s the way I like to manage.


But my primary role, as I see it, is more as a pastor, more as a father. Because I come as a healer.


Now, I have no white papers, no hidden agenda. I didn’t get a big document from the Holy See that said “this is what you’ve gotta do.” I have no marching orders, other than to show up and to be who I am. So, if there are any questions about why me, why was I chosen - I have no idea, except that I’m here. I got the call from the Apostolic Nuncio, and I said to him, “I’ll give it my best shot.”


But my desire to be with you is as any father - or more of a grandfather, I suppose - of a family that I know is hurting and in need of healing.


So, my first priorities will primarily be to listen. I want to hear what’s in your heart, what your concerns are, where you think we should go. This is only my first day here, so I don’t come here with a preconceived plan of what I’m going to do. I’m more interested in you. Whatever I do, I want it to be something that will build up our friendship, build up our family.


We’re all family. The survivors of sexual abuse are our family. I want everyone to know that they will be treated with respect. I continue to, as I do in the Diocese of Albany, say, “If you see something, say something. Never be afraid to come forward. You will be treated with respect.” The processes, if there’s a need to change some of them - we will do that. Those that are working - we’ll continue to follow them as well. They’ll be done with openness, candor, and transparency.


You know recently, I attended a conference involving priests that were themselves the survivors of sexual abuse. I remember saying at one point, you know, “I can’t think of speaking to a congregation, every time I speak, without thinking that a good 20 or 25% of those folks that I’m preaching to have suffered in some way from abuse. Maybe not sexual abuse by clergy, which is so traumatic, but some form of maybe domestic violence, or anyone that’s grown up in a home where there’s alcohol or substance abuse knows what that’s like, the insecurity of that, the boundaries that are crossed, how many people that are suffering, and not to mention victims of human trafficking and other forms of violence, sexual or otherwise…” And one of the priests said to me, Fr. Ken from Kalamazoo, “You know, the figures show that it’s actually as high as 50%.” So, we’re all hurting in some way, even if it’s not personal, as members of families, as friends. So, we have to develop a sense of openness and trust, as family members do, and great patience. And that’s what I want to be able to do with you as we walk this walk.


So, that’s my number one priority with you: an openness, a conversation, particularly with those that are suffering the most.


Secondly, I think also my vision of a diocese is primarily that the health of our diocese is in our parishes. Now, this is not in any way to say that our support organizations - Catholic Charities, Catholic education, all of the departments are absolutely key to the running of the Diocese, and we’ll be sure that all of those diocesan services are kept in a healthy state so that they can do the mission of the church throughout the diocese.


But we here at the Catholic Center primarily are here to serve the parishes, and there is nobody that feels the brunt of all of the pain that we’ve been through, all of these years and these months, more than our people in the parishes and our parish leaders. So I want to express my support to the priests and parish leaders, many of whom are lay people as well, collaborating together in every way that I possibly can, to reach out to those in our parishes who are hurting. My favorite definition of parish is that it’s a family of families and a family for those without family. They say that “home is a place that when you knock on the door, they have to take you in.” I would like every parish to be an oasis of security, where people can come home and nobody feels left out, not even the person in the back.


I have a friend of mine who’s a victim-survivor of sexual abuse. She has told the story many times because this occurred at a very young age and was a priest friend of her family. She was very, very young, just 6 or 7. And I remember her saying (it became something that she became aware of, because it was so traumatizing), “I left the church thirteen times, but I found myself, even though I was so disillusioned and so hurt, I kept coming back. Sometimes I would just sneak into the church when Mass wasn’t going on, and I would come and I’d go. Finally, I got to the point after thirteen times, I said “I’m not going to let any human being or any institution keep me away from Jesus. And I know that Jesus is here.” So she returned to the Church. She’s a full practicing Catholic, she’s telling her story, and maybe you’ll get a chance to hear from her sometime too. She’s a close friend.


I think there are many folks like that, who are looking to find a path back, but there may be some obstacle there. How many times we’ve heard stories as Catholics (you know, I go way back to the 50s; I was born in ‘48), when you hear somebody that had a terrible experience in a confessional (“You did what?!?”), or somebody that felt unwelcome and never got over that. So we need to open the doors and open hearts up.


A lot of times people say, “How are you going to restore the trust?” (there’s no question that trust has been broken or compromised), and I have to be honest, I feel a little uncomfortable with that. I’m going to be frank, because that’s my background. I come from Brooklyn; I’m a straight shooter; I speak what’s on my mind. Sometimes I feel like a husband who’s been unfaithful to his wife, who says, “Well, how many bunches of flowers do I need to send you until you finally take me back and trust me again?” But it goes much deeper than just performing acts to ritualize. Trust is something that just has to be built, and ultimately, it’s a gift.


So, I would say to any one of you that may not trust me, or trust people in my position as a priest or a bishop or clergy - First of all, don’t judge us all as a class. I think we’ve done an awful lot of that, you know: all victims, all survivors, all bishops, all priests, all journalists, all lay people, all clerics, all men, all women... there’s a lot of that going on. We have to avoid, at least I will try to avoid, writing off people. I like to see every person as a child of God that has a story, that God loves deeply. I think we need to treat one another with that respect. So I think that is the kind of atmosphere that can create a real rebuilding of trust.


If we see one another as children of God, all part of God’s family, then our stories, our experiences - some of them quite negative and very painful - are all valuable, even if they speak great pain and great hurt and even great anger. Anger is not a step that we can bypass or sugar-coat. There’s a place for anger, particularly if it can be turned into passion for reform and for good. We have to listen. We have to be patient. This is what we do. We stick together as family.


So that is the major message I want to convey: victims first, survivors first, anyone who is suffering; open doors, conversation; particularly respect for those that are in the trenches, parish leaders. Our role as diocesan administrators is primarily as parish support. We’re there to help them, to make sure that the people in our parishes, our parish families, are given the spiritual, moral, emotional, professional support that they need to do the good works of mercy.


I will also say to those that maybe have been so alienated from the Church that they may have been withholding: The good work that we do is not only to help Catholic people. The works of mercy, for example, that Catholic Charities performs - we’re here for the entire community, anyone that is hurting or suffering. That’s part of our mission. Even the mission of Catholic schools was primarily to bring education to poor immigrants, the people that did not have an opportunity to get into the American way of life, to give them the education, give them the tools to be able to integrate into American society. We continue to see ourselves as serving the entire community.


Money is going to be an issue that’s going to come up - financial transparency, the specter of bankruptcy, those things. We’ll examine all responsible options, but I fully believe that people are generous of heart. They just want to be sure that whatever money goes to the right place. So we want to make sure that all of our ways of accounting are transparent, are responsible, are accountable. I have no doubt in my mind that people will rise to the occasion to support the works of mercy that benefit not only our Church but the entire community.


So, I don’t know how much more time I have, but those are basically the things that are on my mind right now, and I will open up to any questions that any of you might have."


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So, there you have it. For unscripted remarks on the first day of a rather unenviable job assignment, I think Bishop Ed’s words hit all the right notes.


Now, before anyone jumps in to say this - Yes, I know that it’s actions that matter, much more than words. We’ve had plenty of examples of church leaders who know how to say all the right words but only use them to cover up corruption and deception. I can’t guarantee that Bishop Ed isn’t one of those, but I will say that positive words by the Albany SNAP leader (“I have nothing negative to say about him”) are a pretty promising sign. I also take hope in the impression of survivor Michael Whalen, whose courageous truth-telling is part of what made all of this possible in Buffalo. Whalen sat next to Bishop Ed at an event on Saturday and described their conversation as “great.”


Here’s what I appreciated in Bishop Ed’s first remarks in Buffalo:


  • His focus on openness, dialogue, and listening - a good way to start.

  • The way he explicitly thanked the press for their work in revealing hard truths about the Church (This is such a huge change from the way Malone approached the media in Buffalo!)

  • His emphasis on collaboration, especially with lay people

  • A thoughtful focus on victim-survivors that described them as hurting family members, rather than enemies

  • His sober acknowledgement of the great pain being experienced by many in the Church, even those who haven’t been directly affected by clerical abuse

  • The fact that he is aware of the huge percentage of people in the pews who have been touched by some kind of abuse - and that he knows this matters in the way we preach and minister in our parishes

  • An acceptance of anger as an appropriate response to injustice

  • His humble recognition that there’s only so much one person can do and that healing and building trust will be a slow process

I also strongly agree with Bishop Ed’s comments about not judging whole groups of people as if they’re all the same. That is one thing I have learned over and over in the last year, as I continue to read and learn and hear stories. People - ALL people - are individuals. There’s very little that we can claim to be true of all bishops - or of all priests, all lay people, all Catholics, all journalists, all survivors, or even of all abusers. Every human being is unique and unrepeatable. While there may be common threads within groups, I agree with Bishop Ed that we will be much more successful in addressing these issues if we’re willing to approach each person as an individual.


Anyway, based on what I’ve seen so far, I’m choosing to remain cautiously optimistic about the new leadership in the Diocese of Buffalo. Besides, I know that there are plenty of smart folks on the ground there who are paying close attention and will let us know how it’s going. I'll definitely be watching to see what happens in the coming weeks!


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Whatever your first impressions of Bishop Scharfenberger, I think we can all agree that the Diocese of Buffalo could use our prayers for the hard road ahead:


Lord, send your Holy Spirit upon the Diocese of Buffalo. Move powerfully in the hearts of every individual, especially those who have been suffering most. Give them guidance as they discern the next steps. Grant them strength and justice and healing.


Amen.


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©2020 by Sara Larson