Two years after New York Attorney General Letitia James sued the Diocese of Buffalo along with former bishops Richard J. Malone and Edward M. Grosz for putting children at risk for decades while they covered up sexual abuse by dozens of priests, the two sides have reached an unprecedented settlement that includes government oversight of the operations within the Buffalo Diocese.
The lawsuit came after a two-year investigation into the Diocese. It claimed that allegations of abuse by priests were “inadequately investigated, if at all.” Even when there were credible accusations, the Catholic Church leaders allowed the priests to retire or take a medical leave so that they could not be internally punished. In one case, a priest who had been the subject of eight separate allegations of sexual assault was still allowed to minister to children.
On Tuesday, the Diocese agreed to a unique arrangement:
The agreement, which is the first of its kind in New York, includes no financial penalties but instead mandates a series of structural reforms within the diocese, particularly regarding its handling of abuse allegations.
Under the deal, priests who have been credibly accused of abuse will be assigned an independent monitor with law enforcement experience to ensure they comply with a list of restrictions, which include a ban on watching pornography, performing priestly duties and having a post office box.
Malone and Grosz also received a lifetime ban on holding any financial role in a New York-based charity.
The big headline here is that the Buffalo Diocese is allowing secular officials to perform oversight on their operations and staff. The Church has routinely opposed outside interference, claiming it was capable of policing itself, but as we’ve known for decades, that’s obviously not true. The Church is more interested in protecting the institution than kids. It took secular reporters writing about the abuse, and secular attorneys general filing lawsuits against the Church before anything of significance happened to curb the problem. This is just the next step in that process.
And this is just with one diocese. The attorney general is still investigating the other seven dioceses in New York.
The program in question will be in place for at least five years, according to James’ office. The Buffalo Diocese will submit to an annual audit of its compliance to be conducted by a former FBI agent who specializes in clergy sexual abuse and who will be paid by the Diocese. The audits will be made public on the Diocese’s website.
Furthermore, if future allegations of abuse arise, an independent investigator will look into the matter and return findings within 45 days. A mandatory lay review board will offer recommendations in each case, which will also be made public. Accused clergy members who are suspended will also be named publicly. All complaints will go to law enforcement and the Buffalo Diocese will cooperate in all oversight investigations. If a priest refuses to cooperate, the Church can now withhold that priest’s pension until he complies.
All of this is really the bare minimum. The agreement basically requires the Catholic Church in Buffalo to take abuse allegations seriously instead of sweeping them under the rug as they did in the past. And “seriously” in this case means getting help from people who actually care about children… which means working with people outside the Catholic Church hierarchy.
The only thing that bothers me at first glance is the requirement that priests credibly accused of abuse “shall be prohibited from viewing, downloading, or otherwise possessing pornography or sexually explicit materials of any kind” and banned from going to a strip club or adult bookstore. The implication seems to be that a priest who does any of those things is some sort of deviant… but adults enjoying consensual (and private) adult content shouldn’t be confused with illicit, illegal actions that involve children. Watching NSFW content doesn’t make you more likely to abuse children. Reading erotica isn’t the problem here.
Besides that, though, it’s about damn time the Catholic Church admitted it’s incapable of taking abuse seriously, and we’re lucky that New York officials decided to take serious action to protect children. A financial penalty wouldn’t fix the problem; this actually might.
The question now is how many Catholics who attend Buffalo churches will notice all the red flags and take their families out of the Church for good. If it takes a years-long lawsuit and an FBI agent to babysit priests so they don’t molest kids, you’re better off staying at home or finding a church that doesn’t need to be forced by the courts to do the bare minimum.