Catholic activism, not repentance for sexual abuse, is what forces clergy to resign

Bishop Richard Malone of Buffalo, at a news conference on Nov. 5, 2018, in Cheektowaga, New York. AP Photo/Frank Franklin II

The Roman Catholic bishop of Buffalo, New York, Richard Malone, became the seventh U.S. bishop since 2015 to be forced out of power for his role in covering up clergy sexual abuse cases. Malone resigned on Dec. 4, stating that his departure stemmed from a recognition that “the people of Buffalo will be better served by a new bishop who perhaps is better able to bring about the reconciliation, healing and renewal that is so needed.”

By comparison, during the prior 35 years, only three U.S. bishops had resigned because of the scandal, even though there were more than 10,000 cases of clergy sexual abuse reported to the American bishops during that time.

In my research, I have found that this increase in bishop accountability is due not to an improvement in the Vatican’s protocols, but rather to the activism of local Catholic reform groups.

Start of survivor-advocacy groups

I study how survivors and their advocates have exposed the problem of clergy sexual abuse.

Survivors first went public with their stories of abuse in the 1980s. But other Catholics did not begin forming survivor-advocacy groups until 2002, when a series of reports detailing how Cardinal Bernard Law, then the archbishop of Boston, had protected more than 230 abusive priests.

Energized by the Boston Globe’s investigation, Boston parishioners founded Voice of the Faithful in 2002, a nonprofit organization dedicated to supporting clergy abuse survivors and increasing transparency in the Catholic Church.

Within months, Voice of the Faithful had grown into a national movement of 50,000 members organized into 220 local chapters. It was through their public protests and petitions that Cardinal Law was forced to resign in December 2002.

Voice of the Faithful erected a sign at a Denver hotel on June 15, 2004, where more than 250 U.S. Catholic bishops were meeting. AP Photo/Ed Andrieski

Seeking reforms, not revolutions

Voice of the Faithful’s rapid ascension came in part, sociologists have concluded, because their leaders were highly educated professionals with a proven track record as activists.

Founding Voice of the Faithful president James Muller, for example, was a recipient of the 1985 Nobel Peace Prize for his role in the International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War, which joined Soviet and American doctors during the Cold War. With Muller and other accomplished professionals in their leadership, Voice of the Faithful was able to quickly attract national media attention and financial support.

Most Voice of the Faithful members remained active Catholics, and they often used parish halls and Catholic campuses for their meetings and events.

Although some bishops decried Voice of the Faithful as radical, many Catholic intellectuals and priests discretely welcomed the movement. These priests opened their parishes’ doors to Voice of the Faithful members, but they didn’t sign petitions or write op-eds criticizing the bishops in their own diocese.

The group was never declared schismatic, and the top archbishops and cardinals in the United States met with its leaders from the very start. Several bishops also openly supported the group.

Its motto, “Keep the faith, change the church,” indicates how Voice of the Faithful worked toward specific reforms without upending the broader institutional framework of the Catholic Church. For example, they stressed the value of women’s leadership, but they did not demand that the Church begin ordaining women priests.

For Catholics who felt betrayed by their bishops – even if they were not sexually abused – Voice of the Faithful provided a mechanism to voice their dissatisfaction. Through listening sessions held in dioceses across the country, Voice of the Faithful provided more direct access to the cardinals and bishops. These sessions offered Catholics a glimpse of democratic participation, and they also helped shape the American bishops’ new policies to protect children.

Local Catholics and their role

Voice of the Faithful was unable to recruit “millennial” Catholics into its group, and its membership has declined as its baby-boomer base has aged. But new Catholic organizations continue to emerge.

In Buffalo, New York, a community of affluent and highly educated Catholics formed the Movement to Restore Trust in 2018. The group is led by executives in business, law and education, and they were the most powerful of several Catholic organizations in calling on Bishop Malone to resign.

Other Catholics in Buffalo staged protests and created an online petition demanding Malone’s departure. Borrowing a strategy that Catholic survivors began using in the 1990s, some parishioners placed protest notes instead of money into the weekly collection basket. The notes said they were withholding donations to the church until Malone stepped down.

Priests join groups in supporting survivors

Like Voice of the Faithful, the Movement to Restore Trust and other Catholic survivor-advocate groups in Buffalo have tried to work within the Church, maintaining close ties with clergy.

These strong relationships allowed Buffalo Catholics to eventually win the public support of their local priests.

At the Vatican abuse summit in February, former priest and survivor James Falfaluszczak appealed to Pope Francis to remove Malone from office. Falfaluszczak was trained alongside many of Buffalo’s accused abusers when he was a seminary student.

In September, the Rev. Bob Zilliox, head pastor of St. Mary’s Parish in the Diocese of Buffalo, recruited 12 New York priests to sign a letter of no confidence in Malone. Several days later, additional priests in Buffalo signed onto another campaign asking Malone to resign.

The courage of whistleblowers

These priests and survivor-advocates in Buffalo were also empowered by whistleblowers from Bishop Malone’s own staff.

In March 2018, Bishop Malone issued a press release naming 42 sexually abusive priests in the Diocese of Buffalo. In the following months, his executive assistant, Siobhan O’Connor, began leaking documents to journalist Charlie Specht, including the bishop’s full list of 117 suspected abusive priests. O'Connor also revealed that Malone had returned at least one suspected predator back into the diocese.

In September 2019, a second key whistleblower emerged in Buffalo. Malone’s priest secretary, the Rev. Ryszard Biernat, leaked audio recordings in which the bishop admitted to hiding a suspected abuser in order to protect his own reputation.

Holding bishops accountable

After O'Connor leaked diocesan files to the media, the FBI and the New York attorney general initiated their own investigations into Bishop Malone, adding to the pressure for him to resign.

Two sisters from Pennsylvania, Patty and Lara, are suing the Archdiocese of Newark and the Diocese of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. AP Photo/Seth Wenig

This year, there has been an avalanche of new lawsuits filed by survivors across the country. Lawmakers in nearly half of the country’s 50 states reacted to the 2018 Pennsylvania grand jury report by changing their state’s laws for child sexual abuse.

In February 2019, legislators in New York enacted the Child Victims Act, which extended the statute of limitations for child sexual abuse to age 55. The new legislation also opened a one-year window for survivors of any age to file suit if they were abused prior to the new law taking effect.

Within the Diocese of Buffalo alone, the Child Victims Act resulted in more than 200 new clergy sexual abuse lawsuits filed by victims who were unable to seek justice under the prior laws.

Bishop Malone’s resignation represents the dramatic increase in Catholic support for survivors since 2002. No longer alone in their calls for bishop accountability, survivors now have the support of fellow Catholics, whistleblowers, their parish priests, state lawmakers and federal prosecutors.

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