WINDSOR TERRACE — In an introductory teleconference Tuesday morning, Dec.1, Auxiliary Bishop Michael Fisher of Washington emphasized the collaborative, cooperative, and communicative approach to ministry that he will bring to the Diocese of Buffalo as its new bishop.
Bishop Fisher enters the diocese at a time of turmoil amidst a cleric sex abuse lawsuit. Last week, New York State attorney general Letitia James sued the diocese and Bishop Emeritus Richard Malone and Auxiliary Bishop Emeritus Edward Grosz for failing to protect minors and inadequately investigating and reporting claims against diocesan priests that went back decades.
“I’m coming in as a pastor,” Bishop Fisher said. “I know we need to be truthful. I know we need to establish trust with those we serve. Our parishes, our schools, need to be places that our parents and those we serve feel safe. I’m very much for accountability and transparency.”
Bishop Fisher’s installment in the diocese of Buffalo — 6,357 square miles in New York with over 500,000 Catholics — will be on January 15. He comes from the Archdiocese of Washington, where he was an auxiliary bishop for two years. He was a pastor for 30 years prior.
In his remarks, Bishop Fisher said it’s crucial to listen and support the victims before the diocese offers its viewpoint on moving forward.
He also talked about the importance of re-establishing the clergy’s trust but acknowledged that trust is earned over time. He said the way to get there is through collaboration with all members of the diocese, both laity, and clerics.
“I’ve just been appointed, and I hope you will give me the opportunity. Certainly, trust needs to be seen in our actions and how we carry our ministry,” Bishop Fisher said. “I am committed to certainly transparency and working with all of the people of the diocese to help move forward.”
However, Bishop Fisher wouldn’t commit to removing anyone mentioned in the lawsuit that still holds a position of power in the diocese. He said he needs to meet everybody before any of those types of decisions are made.
In a statement last week about the lawsuit, James said that trust in diocesan leadership was broken from its failure to protect children in the diocese from sexual abuse. And that there are substantiated allegations of improper sexual conduct against 78 diocesan priests.
Fisher said his appointment wasn’t directly related to the lawsuit. He said he found out two weeks ago in a phone call with Apostolic Nuncio to the United States Archbishop Christophe Pierre before day two of the USCCB meeting. The lawsuit wasn’t mentioned in the call, he added.
The appointment was announced by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops in a press release Tuesday morning. In a statement, Cardinal Wilton Gregory, archbishop of Washington, called Fisher an “exceptionally compassionate and skilled servant of the church.”
“(Bishop Fisher’s) distinguished history as pastor, vicar for priests, and members of our Pastoral Administration have prepared him well for his new responsibilities in that diocese,” Cardinal Gregory said.
The appointment was also supported by Bishop Edward Scharfenberger of Albany, who served the Diocese of Buffalo as apostolic administrator for the past year. The Movement to Restore Trust — a laity group from Buffalo created last year in the wake of the 2018 sex abuse scandal in the diocese — also supported the appointment.
“He must lead a process that is both legal and pastoral and create a church that is focused on healing and reconciliation,” organizing committee member John Hurley said in a statement.