Bp. Michael Fisher and the Buffalo diocese are facing more than 900 child sex abuse claims. To put that into perspective: If exactly 900 claims were each settled for $750,000 each, the diocese would be looking at some $675 million in settlement and legal fees.
But many abuse victims in the diocese of Buffalo may never experience justice, no matter how much evidence they present to support their claims. There are several reasons why, the first of which has to do with the way the Buffalo diocese processes complaints.
The Buffalo diocese invites victims to submit reports of sexual or any other abuse via a toll-free hotline and website called EthicsPoint, owned by NAVEX Global, Inc.
When one complainant submitted a report, he was assigned a "key code" online by EthicsPoint. The complainant received three communications from the diocese of Buffalo stating it was working on the case. No one from the diocese personally spoke with the complainant or requested an interview.
After several months passed without hearing back either from EthicsPoint or the diocese, the complainant attempted to get a status report on his case. Upon entering the key code and password, he learned his file was nowhere to be found in the EthicsPoint system. Suspecting a technical error, he contacted the technical support department of NAVEX Global and learned the company does not retain complaint files but passes them on to their clients (in this case, that means the diocese).
After filing a complaint about the way his report was improperly processed by both NAVEX Global and the diocese, the complainant received the following response from EthicsPoint (numbers removed to preserve anonymity):
The organization [Buffalo diocese] sent these … comments before report was closed.
You cannot respond: 'This case was originally submitted as case xx. That case was thoroughly investigated and found unsubstantiated. The case was closed x/xx/21.
The date when the "case was closed" was the same day it was submitted. How can a complaint be thoroughly investigated within four hours of when it's submitted — and on a Sunday evening to boot?
The whole setup creates a misleading impression to the broader public that EthicsPoint/NAVEX Global is the one monitoring and processing complaints as a neutral third party.
Jennifer Kane, a lay Carmelite, had a similar experience filing two complaints that were submitted on a Thursday evening and were ruled on the following Monday to be unsubstantiated.
Kane reported Msgrs. David LiPuma and Richard Siepka for participating with other diocesan officials in concealing a clergy sexual abuse report made in 2004 by then-seminarian Ryszard Biernat. Kane's allegations were based on the victim's detailed disclosures to her in 2006 and were corroborated by documents cited in the New York state attorney general's 2020 lawsuit against the diocese.
Neither Kane nor Biernat were interviewed by the anonymous person(s) who supposedly conducted the internal investigation and deemed the claims unsubstantiated.
Despite a plethora of evidence presented by Kane against LiPuma and Siepka, Bp. Fisher continues to retain the two monsignors in positions of authority within the diocese of Buffalo.
When asked to comment about the diocese's abuse reporting system, Kane rued:
The three past bishops administering the diocese since 2018 promised us transparency. Instead, what I received from the mystery author of that diocesan response is arguably more gaslighting from an organization intent on protecting its officials and its image over truth and justice for survivors. How else can we interpret that bizarre response?
LiPuma and Siepka are not the only priests who victims believe are not being properly disciplined. Allegations against Fr. Raymond Donohue, accused of abuse in 1987, were found to be "unsubstantiated" by an investigator hired by the diocese who reported his findings to the diocesan review board.
The Buffalo diocese's procedures for handling abuse complaints are similar to some corrupt insurance companies that send letters of rejection to customers asserting their claims were not covered under the terms of their insurance policies. Many insurers will become discouraged and not pursue their claims. It is only when an insured files a lawsuit that an insurance company may find itself forced to honor the terms of the policy.
John Flynn, a Catholic, is district attorney for Erie County, New York — one of eight counties within the Buffalo diocese. Flynn has yet to prosecute even one Catholic priest for sexual abuse or one bishop for criminal omission.
However, Flynn's office appears to have filed charges against two former seminarians, Stephen Parisi and Matthew Bojanowski, who protested with other Catholics outside the diocesan chancery, calling for the resignation of Bp. Richard Malone, who headed the diocese at the time.
It took over a year before the court dismissed all the charges of harassment, disorderly conduct and trespass. The whole ordeal led the former seminarians to file a lawsuit against two diocese officials, Msgr. Peter Karalus and Cheryl Calire.
According to the suit, the defendants, Karalus and Calire:
without legal justification and without probable cause, caused criminal charges to be brought against the plaintiffs, which terminated in plaintiffs' favor, causing the plaintiffs to be maliciously prosecuted and subjected to an abuse of process in that the criminal charges were brought for the collateral purpose of stopping plaintiffs from protesting against actions taken and not taken by the diocese of Buffalo.
Depositions in the case are scheduled for late August.
The underhanded behavior of diocesan officials has been widely reported by media, especially investigative reporter Charlie Specht of The Buffalo News Watchdog Team. Specht produced award-winning investigations into the diocese's mishandling of sex abuse allegations involving its priests.
Chances are slim that Bp. Fisher will act any differently than his predecessor, Bp. Malone.
Malone suspended whistleblower Fr. Ryszard Biernat, who leaked audio tapes revealing how Malone covered up for abusive priests, and Scharfenberger failed to lift Biernat's suspension when he was the acting administrator before Fisher's appointment.
Malone, Scharfenberger and Fisher all appear to be covering up for former auxiliary bishop Edward Grosz. Grosz was accused of abusing a minor.
He is also said to have threatened Biernat with being sent back to Poland if he were to report being sexually assaulted by Fr. Art Smith, Grosz's old seminary classmate.
If it were not for the statute of limitations, Smith could be prosecuted for committing a sex crime and Grosz, along with Malone, could be prosecuted for criminal omission.
Former Buffalo bishops Malone and Grosz were not disciplined by Pope Francis even after the New York attorney general sued them for failing to protect children and engaging in a decades-long cover-up of clerical sexual abuse. The closest thing they got to being disciplined was that Bp. Malone resigned.
The fact that they were never disciplined makes one question why Buffalo Catholics continue to meekly pay, pray and obey. Hardly any Catholics in Buffalo seemed to complain when Bp. Fisher invited Malone to participate in the Chrism Mass on April 14, 2022.
Unfortunately, there's little hope that Bp. Fisher will discipline former bishops and current priests who were found to have engaged in or covered up abuse. Commenting on laydob.com, which provides information and perspectives on the clergy sexual abuse crisis in the Buffalo diocese, one person wrote, "Bishop Mike" is failing to hold people accountable "for their gross dereliction of duty, concealing child rapists, wasting millions of donor dollars and putting people at risk."
Another deceptive abuse reporting system is ReportBishopAbuse.org. The website is operated by a Denver-based company, Convercent, which purports to help "companies design and implement compliance programs."
According to the website, "This service has been created to gather and relay reports of sexual misconduct involving bishops of the United States and reports of their intentional interference in a sexual abuse investigation."
When a complainant submits a report about a prelate of a particular diocese, he receives the following message: "Thank you for contacting the Catholic bishop abuse-reporting service. Your report has been forwarded to the proper local Church authority, most often to an archbishop and to a lay person who has been designated to assist the archbishop in receiving reports."
Insofar as the system is set up where one bishop investigates another bishop (as happened when Brooklyn's Bp. Nicholas DiMarzio was investigated by his friend Cdl. Timothy Dolan), one can never expect the bishop to be found guilty, no matter how much evidence there is.
To date, only seven out of 150 bishops credibly accused of abusing minors or vulnerable adults have actually been laicized. If only the pope has the authority to discipline bishops, how can he be expected to do so when it has been documented he covered up countless clerical abuse cases when he was the archbishop of Buenos Aires despite having said, "It [sex abuse] never happened in my diocese"?