Holy Trinity forged to fight sexual abuse crisis in Catholic Diocese

Jul 15, 2019

The Child Victims Act fully becomes New York law on Aug. 14. It is expected to bring a new wave of sexual abuse cases into the light, as the law allows more survivors their day in court. It also adds more urgency to the work currently underway to transform the Buffalo Catholic Diocese into a place of healing for those who have lost faith in the church.


"We're going to find out here just how widespread this issue of child sex abuse is," said Movement to Restore Trust organizer John Hurley.

Canisius College President John Hurley and other lay Catholic leaders organized the Movement to Restore Trust in the fall of last year to ensure the sexual abuse crisis in the church never happens again. In May, the diocese reported its compensation program for survivors awarded 127 people an average of $160,000 each and rejected more than half the claims filed.

"The Child Victims Act engages on Aug. 14. I'm pretty sure a number of the people who did not accept the offer and other people we don't know about yet, I'm pretty sure we'll hear from them," said Bishop Richard Malone, who has led the diocese since 2012.

While the compensation program has ended, Malone has accepted with "general support" a nine-point plan of additional recomendations created by more than 100 Catholics who joined the Movement. The two are now working to make it happen, in a partnership being held up as a model for other dioceses.

Siobhan O'Connor, a former executive assistant to Bishop Richard Malone (r), embraces Michael Whalen, who was about to attend his first Mass in 40 years in February, one year after making a public revelation of childhood sexual abuse that sparked an overwhelming influx of complaints in the diocese.
Credit Michael Mroziak / WBFO News

"I see their model as both heart and head. They are keenly aware that people are deeply wounded and angry and committed to their church, and so there's a process to care for that. And there's also a process looking at how can we address the leadership culture and the trust rebuilding and the institution of the church moving forward," said Leadership Roundtable CEO Kim Smolik.

One of the nine points was to bring in an independent collaboration of prominent laity, religious and clergy called Leadership Roundtable to facilitate the work. Smolik said, since their founding in 2005, the Washington, D.C.-based consultants have worked with 70% of dioceses across the country to implement best practices and accountability.

"From what I've seen around the country, I can't think of a single place where you have a better organized, more talented set of lay individuals who want to partner with their church and their bishop than in Buffalo. And all I can say is that things in the Diocese of Buffalo are moving as quickly as I've seen anywhere in the country," said Senior Leadership Consultant Dominic Perri.

Their point man in Buffalo is Dominic Perri, who said he brings to the table experience from 40-to-50 dioceses across the United States over the last 20 years, the last six with Leadership Roundtable. Perri said his role is to help put the mechanisms in place that will bring Buffalo's nine-point action plan to life.

James Bottlinger (r), seen here in a photo when he was 17, with the late Fr. Michael Freeman, who he claims abused him sexually. He rejected a $650,000 offer from the diocese's compensation program in order to bring a lawsuit.
Credit James Bottlinger

"Leadership Roundtable was not a new entity to me when it was recommended by, can we call it, MRT, the Movement to Restore Trust. I had worked with them in the past, as member of the U.S. Bishop's Committee on the Laity for many years and still do," said Malone. "I came to know Dominic Perri. I would say that he's very graciously forceful. He's very clear that we need to make progress that's real and also credible and observable and not just keep talking."

"What it means is we have these meetings where we've introduced to Bishop Malone and his staff action registers and decision logs where we decide to do something," said Hurley, "so there's a date put by it and there's a person assigned and when we come back the next meeting, people are called to account to hand in their homework, as it were."

"You know, I think Catholics are really aware - lay, clergy, Catholic people involved in the church - are really aware that the status quo is no longer the way forward," said Smolik. "We can't just expect the old ways to serve us going forward. Change is absolutely necessary."

"The Catholic diocese - as most dioceses are - is probably one of largest employers in the region, one of the larger potential voices in the civic dialogue," said Perri, "and so what it does - well hopefully - has great impact not only on Catholics but on non-Catholics and the entire community."

All three parties of this newly formed holy trinity acknowledge ultimate success will be ordained and laity working in equal partnership in every parish. The first week of June, the three met with all priests in the diocese to discuss how best to do that.

As much as it may be desired, no one expects success overnight. They are hopeful enough progress will be made in time to handle the new wave of sexual abuse cases expected next month when the Child Victims Act takes effect. The bishop called the first wave a "tsunami." It would not be unexpected if the next wave is larger than the first.

Washington, DC-based Leadership Roundtable staff, led by CEO Kim Smolik (front left).
Credit Leadership Roundtable

More about Leadership Roundtable

"Catholics throughout the United States, and across the globe, have felt the impact of twin crises: the crisis of sexual abuse and the crisis of leadership failures that covered up the abuse."

So begins Leadership Roundtable's report from its Catholic Partnership Summit, convened in February. It was a calling together of more than 200 Catholic leaders from 43 dioceses to identify "best practices in bishop accountability and co-responsibility, as well as best practices for responding to clergy sexual abuse."

That is the mission of the collaboration: sharing and implementing best practices.

"In the early days, we were seen in some cases as being a threat. Are we a watchdog group, they wondered? And we never were that," said Smolik. "We were always about partnership with the church and support, to help elevate the best practices, to help heal the church."

Smolik said the group gained the trust of dioceses "meeting after meeting, face to face, traveling across the United States and sharing with them that we were there to help and how, and then proving that."

Leadership Roundtable goes only where they are invited. Just since the summer of 2018, more than 50 dioceses have reached out for their help, including Buffalo.

"We offer a neutral space where the formal leadership in the church and Movement to Restore Trust learn to be able to exchange their deepest concerns and hurts, as well as make expert consultations on ways to move forward," Smolik said. "That's the process we're in right now (in Buffalo)."

As consultants, there is a fee for their services, although Smolik would not divulge it due to contract confidentiality. She would say that there is plenty of work to do within the nine-point action plan agreed upon by Malone and the Movement, but the model will be constantly reviewed to see if it still fits.

She said success will be measured using Leadership Roundtable's Mission Management Model. According to their website, 20% of the dioceses worked with "are on their way to transformation."

"Each stage has assessment tools and indicators that the diocese is at that particular place in the leadership and management cultural transformation," she said, "and about every year in this process, we create roadmaps of how we're going to implement."

Leadership Roundtable's point man in Buffalo

Dominic Perri is Leadership Roundtable's Senior Leadership Consultant.
Credit Leadership Roundtable

"Our mission is to align the diocese with best practices," said Perri about his style of facilitating. "I don't think it's a matter of being forceful. I think it's a matter of being persistant and oftentimes it's helping a local church to figure out how to put those best practices into place."

Perri is based in Chicago, but his job is to facilitate the conversations and action plan happening in the Buffalo Catholic Diocese. Perri said he will play no role in whether the bishop resigns, as some want. He said that is between the bishop and the pope.

His role is to "come in and assess whether it looks like there's an opportunity for growth and progress - and that's what we saw in Buffalo on two fronts. The first was the presence of the Movement to Restore Trust and the quality and dedication of the people who are part of it."

In other dioceses, people may still be talking on a theoretical or conceptual level as to the dimensions of the problem and how to address it.

"In Buffalo, this group self-organized and the most recent meeting they had in March had approximately 100 folks there who were asking the question, 'what can we do next?' I don't see that anywhere else in the country," Perri said. "It's just the opposite. It's the bishop saying, 'I'm trying to figure out how to identify and attract people who want to work with me.'"

Perri said he has been impressed by how well Malone and Hurley have been working together, helping each other, to find common ground. Hurley has said, as the first lay president of Buffalo's Jesuit college, he and the bishop had a good relationship before the sexual abuse crisis became public. Hurley also is the former co-chair of the bishop’s Council of the Laity.

Perri knows people want change as quickly as possible. He admits, however, that a culture change within the church can take years.

"And for anyone who's been a victim of sexual abuse, we don't believe we're going to fix that and make it go away. There's a wound there that will never be fixed," he said. "My understanding is that survivors want to make sure they're being heard and that the church is putting things in place to do everything it can to make sure that these types of things never happen again - and that is very much the focus of what this partnership is about."

Perri said it is a "great opportunity" for lay Catholics to "step forward" and become engaged in the evolution.

"What is going to come forward for lay folks who want to be engaged is a pretty wide range of opportunities," he said. "One of the conversations the priests at the convocation had was help us to create parish councils in every parish that are vibrant and alive and where a local pastor has the opportunity to really hear from and partner closely with the laity in his parish. That's one of the things to look forward to. In addition, at the level of the diocese, there are numerous advisory bodies of lay people who work with the diocese."

Perri encourages Western New Yorkers to look at the Leadership Roundtable website for more information about its work across the country. Eventually, however, he said the goal is for Leadership Roundtable to step away from the process because the local church is in a place whwere it can move forward on its own. He said the group stays only as long as they are needed.

"An interesting dynamic"

John Hurley (l) and Bishop Richard Malone visit the WBFO studios.
Credit Marian Hetherly / WBFO News

"I've been a believer throughout my professional career that, when you've a really thorny situation that you've developed some blind spots about, or you just don't know exactly what you're dealing with, I think outside help is always a good thing," said Hurley about recommending Leadership Roundtable to the diocese. "We realized that we had something to learn from Leadership Roundtable. The first time I raised this with Bishop Malone, he said, 'I'm well aware of them. They've done good work around the country.'"

Hurley said the consultants "bring a secular, private sector view of management practices into the spiritual realm of the church." As for Perri, Hurley called him "an honest broker in this process."

"I think it's going very well," said Malone. "Our meetings are candid about the ways things are and what we have to do to move forward to renew and purify the church. It's demanding, it's challenging, but I believe it's the right thing."

Malone said the work in Buffalo has two aims.

"To work with victims in a more compassionate, effective, responsive way and continue to ensure safe environments, but the other aim is to make a different culture of leadership throughout the church and I feel very committed to both of those," he said.

"What we tried to do first is to bring forward some low-hanging fruit: things that we could do quickly and things that could give people the confidence that yes, maybe this was going to work," said Hurley. "And then we will continue to bring additional recommendations out of the report and onto the table."

Hurley called "the next big frontier" the parish level.

"We realize that in order for this to become a movement, it needs to be out in the parishes, it needs to be in the pews," said he said. "At this conference in Georgetown ("Lay Leadership for a Wounded Church and Divided Nation"), they warned me about clericism among the laity. So we're talking with the priests about how they would see it happening most effectively - and then we've got to look at our resources for the MRT and see how we can make that happen."

Malone said he has asked a small group of priests to help him move this forward, as the Second Vatican Council - which celebrated its 60th anniversary in January and provides the foundation of today's Catholic Church - "calls for much stronger and more significant involvement of the laity."

According to the diocesan website, Frs. Daniel Palys (l) and Pascal Ipolito have been waiting on administrative leave for the diocese's investigation into abuse allegations to make a determination since June 2018. Also waiting are Frs. Robert Yetter (Aug. 2018) and Louis Dolinic (Oct. 2018). Bishop Richard Malone said take so long because investigations are meticulous.
Credit WNY Catholic

Some laypeople have criticized the criteria used by the diocese to make claims of abuse public.

"We are working - even as we speak - we're working to add more detail, more information to the names of those priests who have either admitted to abusing or for whom we have the evidence that's been substantiated by our independent review board," Malone said.

Former FBI agent Steven Halter leads diocesan investigations into abuse allegations, along with two former assistant district attorneys. Currently, there are four priests on administrative leave while the diocese investigates allegations.

Malone said there are another "seven or eight" cases of priests about whom claims of abuse have been substantiated by the diocese. They also remain on administrative leave, but supported financially by the diocese, until "the Vatican would give a statement that a priest had been dismissed from the clerical state or given a sentence of life in prayer and penance, so he could never function again as a priest. It's a matter of church law that a bishop is still responsible for them, on some level, until they're dismissed from the clerical state."

Hurley is among those not happy about that process.

"I don't defend the process. I got that message at the conference ('Lay Leadership for a Wounded Church and Divided Nation'): 60 lay leaders from around the country talking about these issues," Hurley said. "One thing that came out, we think the Vatican needs to develop a new sense of just what we're dealing with in the United States. The process is governed by canon law, but it doesn't comport with our notions of due process and speedy trial and things like that. So cases languish and that causes people to wonder what's going on. There's just way too many cases pending over there that people want to see resolved."