Stricter clergy oversight part of Buffalo diocese settlement

BUFFALO, N.Y. (AP) — The Roman Catholic Diocese of Buffalo has agreed to strengthen its oversight of clergy accused of sexual misconduct to settle a lawsuit brought by New York’s attorney general alleging the church mishandled abuse claims and protected predatory priests, authorities said Tuesday.

The settlement requires the diocese to have a formal program to monitor credibly accused priests and submit to an annual compliance audit by a former FBI official with expertise in clergy sexual abuse, Attorney General Letitia James said.

“For far too long, the Buffalo diocese and its leaders failed their most basic duty to guide and protect our children,” James said in a news release. “In choosing to defend the perpetrators of sexual abuse instead of defending the most vulnerable, the Buffalo diocese and its leaders breached parishioners’ trust and caused many a crisis of faith.”

Buffalo Bishop Michael Fisher said the agreement confirms safety and reporting protocols the diocese has adopted in recent years. A priest supervision program begun last year assigns a monitor with law enforcement experience to any accused member of the clergy to enforce restrictions on their conduct. Supervised clergy risk having their pension withheld if they live near children or a school or perform priestly duties.

The diocese also has named a child protection policy coordinator.

“Today’s agreement memorializes the diocese’s utmost commitment to ensuring that all young people and other vulnerable persons are safe and never at risk of abuse of any kind by a member of the clergy, diocesan employee, volunteer, or member of a religious order serving in the Diocese of Buffalo,” Fisher said in a letter to the public.

Under the agreement, former FBI official Kathleen McChesney will review the diocese’s management of sexual abuse complaints and allegations for at least three years as an independent compliance auditor. McChesney has led the FBI offices in Chicago and Portland, Oregon, and was the first director of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Office of Child Protection.

A civil lawsuit brought against the diocese and two former leaders in November 2020 accused the diocese of sheltering accused priests by letting them step away from ministry rather than follow mandated procedures that would subject them to possible removal from the priesthood by the Vatican.

The settlement was met with disappointment from victim advocacy group SNAP, in part because an employee of the diocese was given the job of child protection policy coordinator. The Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests said in a statement that its members “would have greatly preferred to see a truly independent, non-church-related individual take over this office”

The attorney general’s complaint took the novel approach of applying New York’s charities statutes to address clergy sexual misconduct. It accused church officials of misusing charitable assets by supporting priests who were allowed to retire or go on leave.

Under the agreement, Bishop Emeritus Richard Malone and former Auxiliary Bishop Edward Grosz are banned for life from holding any secular fiduciary role with a charity registered in New York, James said.

Malone resigned in December 2019 amid mounting calls for his ouster from his staff, priests and the public over his handling of misconduct allegations. Grosz resigned in 2020 upon reaching the retirement age of 75.

“They’re both relieved that this ordeal is over,” their attorney Dennis Vacco said by phone, adding that Malone and Grosz “have steadfastly maintained that they did not engage in any wrongdoing.”

“From their perspective, the focus now returns to what’s in the best interest of the Catholic faithful throughout the diocese,” Vacco said.

New York’s investigation of the Buffalo diocese began in September 2018, according to James, who said probes are ongoing into the conduct of the state’s seven other dioceses: the Archdiocese of New York and the dioceses of Albany, Brooklyn, Ogdensburg, Rochester, Rockville Centre and Syracuse.

The Diocese of Buffalo filed for bankruptcy protection in February 2020 amid a flood of lawsuits after New York’s Child Victims Act suspended the statute of limitations to give victims of childhood abuse time to pursue even decades-old allegations. The diocese has been the subject of more than 900 claims, James’ office said.

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