The Roman Catholic Church was scheduled to install Bishop Michael Fisher as the 15th Bishop of the Diocese of Buffalo in a Friday afternoon ceremony inside St. Joseph's Cathedral in downtown Buffalo. Earlier in the week, WBFO had the opportunity to interview the bishop one-on-one and cover topics including the ongoing COVID pandemic, the Church's role in social justice issues and, of course, the clergy sex abuse scandal which broke nearly three years ago.
Fisher was appointed by Pope Francis last month to assume leadership of the diocese and replace Bishop Emeritus Richard Malone, who stepped down in December 2019 under intense scrutiny for his handling of clergy sexual abuse allegations. In the interim, Bishop Edward Scharfenberger of Albany served as the apostolic administrator for the Diocese of Buffalo.
Fisher, when formally introduced last month, encouraged reporters and the public to call him "Bishop Mike," as he defines himself as a "parish priest." This week, during an online interview with WBFO, he renewed that invitation to address him more casually and further explained his desire to be a more down-to-earth leader of Western New York's large Catholic community.
"It comes back to family. As I've shared before, I come from a very close family. I had wonderful parents, they're deceased now. And grandparents, I was very close to them. And it instilled in me a love and appreciation for family life. And that's what I experienced as a parish priest," he said. "I cherished my time, half my priesthood was spent as a parish priest, in three different assignments, and they were different areas of the diocese. You really become a part of the sacraments that we celebrate in the Church, they help us to become really a part of the families of our parish."
Fisher was ordained a priest in the Archdiocese of Washington in 1990 and became an auxiliary bishop there in 2018.
The Archdiocese of Washington, like the Diocese of Buffalo, has experienced its own clergy sex abuse scandal, including accusations of leaders covering up past offenses. Bishop Fisher has not been accused of participating in any coverups but one of his former superiors has, Cardinal and Archbishop Emeritus Donald Wuerl. He and other high-ranking US-based Church leaders were scheduled to attend Fisher's Installation Mass, and advocates for clergy sex abuse victims were planning demonstrations outside St. Joseph's Cathedral prior to the ceremony.
Bishop Fisher was asked about concerns this might raise among local Catholics and critics who have been calling for change since the local diocesan scandal escalated in 2018.
"We can't do business as usual. Absolutely not," he said. "I'm absolutely committed to accountability and transparency. There is no tolerance for any kind of abuse of a child or vulnerable adults. I know in Washington, we had very good policies and procedures in place. And I think and I know that those are certainly in place now here in Buffalo, but we need to continually look at those, and how we are carrying them out. If we're going to have the confidence and the trust of our people, they need to know that what we say we're doing, we are doing."
The conversation turned to two individuals who worked closely with Bishop Richard Malone, Siobhan O'Connor and Father Ryszard Biernat. The latter was suspended from ministry by Bishop Malone after it was discovered Biernat leaked recordings of a meeting with the Bishop and others, during which they addressed concerns including allegations of sexual misconduct at Christ the King Seminary.
WBFO asked if Rev. Biernat could be reinstated to resume ministry. Bishop Fisher, noting he had not yet formally begun his new job, would need time to learn more about past events. But he didn't rule it out.
"All I can say is that I am open to meeting with with any of them, that would like to come and talk to me so that we can evaluate their situation," the bishop said. "Again, I expect to be judged by what I do and not just what I say. And I will. I'm very deliberative. I think in the way I approach problems and things. I realize sometimes we want to make decisions about personnel issues or pastoral issues very quickly. But I think sometimes it's good to step back and take a look at that. I'm very collaborative in my style, and I believe in listening. I like to think that's one of my gifts, listening to both sides."
Churches were among the institutions that closed when the COVID pandemic arrived in New York State in early 2020. The Diocese of Buffalo, at that time, announced it would comply with the state's recommendations out of concern for the safety of its congregations. Masses were made available through internet streaming video and, later into the summer, parishes were given permission to reopen with limited capacity. Bishop Fisher was asked out juggling the need to continue active ministry while taking steps to protect worshipers from infection risks. He respects the need to continue precautions but acknowledged frustration by many.
"There's nothing like celebrating the Mass and prayer when you're with people. That what it's about. It's being together in the same room and the same church, around the altar, praying with one another," Fisher said. "We hope we can get back to that soon, because that's what energizes our pastors. Our pastors have been very frustrated."
Fisher was still in quarantine during his interview with WBFO, and stated that out of COVID safety concerns, his family would be unable to attend Friday's installation.
COVID was just one of the memories of 2020. There was social unrest, especially Black Lives Matter protests nationwide. There were rallies by anti-Cuomo and pro-Trump activists in Buffalo who demanded businesses and churches be reopened to full capacity with immediate effect. There was, of course, the contentious presidential election and an equally tense aftermath, leading up to last week's violent invasion of the Capitol building by those who seek to overturn November's presidential election results.
Political differences exist not only among Catholic parishioners but also among priests, deacons, sisters and lay Church officers and leaders. Fisher was asked how the Church could stay focused on its spiritual mission amid political divisions.
"Unfortunately, the public discourse which has become so virile has creeped into even some of the discourse within the Church. But the church has a very important role to play in being a moral voice in our society," Fisher replied. "It doesn't necessarily solve our problems, but I think the Church's long history of the Scriptures, and our moral teaching, our social Catholic teaching, give us a great framework to help with the conversation."