New York News

Buffalo Diocese Agrees to More Oversight to Prevent Sexual Abuse

New York Attorney General Letitia James speaks during a news conference at her office in New York City Aug. 3, 2021. (Photo: Catholic News Service)

PROSPECT HEIGHTS — The Diocese of Buffalo has agreed to enact more secular oversight of its response to complaints of clergy sexual abuse in a legal settlement with New York State Attorney General Letitia James, resolving a 2020 lawsuit that accused the diocese of mishandling allegations. 

Per the settlement, the diocese has appointed a child protection policy coordinator to ensure all safeguards and protocols are followed, and it has committed to a step-by-step documented process to ensure full transparency in addressing sexual abuse complaints. 

Bishop Michael Fisher of Buffalo said in a statement that the diocese hopes the new and enhanced initiatives show the diocese’s commitment to accountability and transparency regarding clergy sexual abuse complaints. 

“We hope that these initiatives, along with our commitment to producing an additional detailed annual compliance audit by an independent auditor, will provide further evidence of our commitment to the level of accountability and transparency that all Catholic faithful and the broader public rightly deserve and require,” Bishop Fisher said. 

In its news release, the diocese highlights that most of the stipulations in the settlement are already a part of the diocese’s policies and protocols that have been developed since the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops implemented the Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People in 2002. The step-by-step process outlined in the settlement includes an independent investigator being appointed following a complaint and a 45-day timeline for all investigations to be completed. 

The diocese’s lay review board must also now provide its recommendation for each investigated case in writing. And the diocese has to make public disclosures throughout the process, including posting the lay review board’s recommendation on its website, publicly disclosing names of accused clergy who are suspended pending investigations, and reporting on all substantiated complaints. The diocese will refer all complaints it receives to law enforcement and cooperate with any investigations as well. 

Further, the settlement codifies the Priest Supervision Program that Bishop Fisher implemented in June. Under the program, accused clergy will be assigned an individual monitor with law enforcement experience to ensure compliance with a list of restrictions. The restrictions for supervised clergy include not celebrating Mass or hearing confessions, wearing their collar, or living in close proximity to children or a school. Credibly accused priests will also be supervised. 

To ensure compliance, the Diocese of Buffalo will complete an annual audit conducted by an independent compliance auditor that is approved by the Attorney General’s office and employed by the diocese. The audit period will last three to five years. The report must be posted to the diocesan website. 

Dr. Kathleen McChesney, former executive assistant director at the FBI and first director of the USCCB Office of Child Protection, will serve in this role. 

Because of the diocese’s pending petition for Chapter 11 bankruptcy, her appointment will not take effect until it’s approved by the United States Bankruptcy Court for the Western District of New York. 

Melissa Potzler, a former assistant district attorney for Erie County, New York, and the recent parish life coordinator at Nativity of Our Lord Parish in Orchard Park, New York, will be the diocese’s new child protection policy coordinator. 

The settlement also excludes Bishop Emeritus Richard Malone and former Auxiliary Bishop Edward Grosz from holding any secular fiduciary role with a charity registered in New York for life. Neither, however, is barred from taking on a ministerial, pastoral, or spiritual role in any New York diocese. 

James brought the lawsuit against the Diocese of Buffalo in November 2020 following a two-year investigation by the state that charged Bishop Emeritus Malone and Bishop Grosz with mishandling child sexual abuse claims by failing to conduct proper investigations into clergy sexual abuse accusations. 

Bishop Emeritus Malone voluntarily resigned in 2019 following a Vatican-led apostolic visitation to the diocese over accusations that sexual abuse allegations were mishandled. At the time, Bishop Malone said that his decision to retire was made separately from the results of the fact-finding mission and was “made freely and voluntarily” to expedite healing in the diocese. 

James said the settlement ensures accountability. “The Buffalo diocese will now begin a much-needed era of independent oversight and accountability, and my office will continue to do everything in its power to restore trust and transparency for the future.” 

This settlement marks the first outcome of investigations launched by the Attorney General’s office on all eight New York State dioceses. The other seven remain ongoing.