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Clergy sex abuse advocates criticize method of picking new Buffalo bishop

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While wishing new Diocese of Buffalo Bishop Michael Fisher success in his new role, a former priest turned advocate for clergy sex abuse victims says Fisher's selection is clouded by the involvement of a former superior, who stepped down from a powerful position within the US Catholic Church amid his own accusations of covering up abuse cases.

Fisher, before coming to Buffalo, served as auxiliary bishop for the Archdiocese of Washington, DC under Cardinal Donald Wuerl. The latter was among numerous current and former US church leaders present for Fisher's Installation Mass Friday at St. Joseph's Cathedral.

Wuerl was named in a scathing 2018 grand jury report looking into clergy sex abuse cases in Pennsylvania, facing accusations of covering alleged incidents up. He stepped down from his role leading the Archdiocese of Washington, DC in 2019. Fisher, meanwhile, has not been accused of any wrongdoing nor has he been accused of participating in cover-ups.

James Faluszczak, a former priest and sex abuse survivor who now works as an advocate for other victims, says it was unacceptable to let Wuerl have a say in other bishops' assignments, given his own history, and disturbing that Pope Francis would allow him to provide input on not only Fisher's nomination but two others.

"The fact that Pope Francis, after these multiple disgraceful and scandalous episodes, would still allow Cardinal Wuerl to have really significant input into the selection of any Bishop, certainly the three most recent and now the last being Bishop Fisher, that's a slap in the face to the victims," he said.

Faluszczak stated he was not pointing fingers at Fisher. When asked how the new bishop might best show his sincerity in healing a troubled diocese, the activist said Fisher needs to talk to the victims and relate to them as human beings.

"One of the concrete things that he could do is fire his legal team that has been in place for so many years, and has been responsible for so much of this," he added. "Even most recently, about two weeks ago, they hired one of the most aggressive anti-victim law firms that they could have, to help with the bankruptcy. Those are some concrete things that could do right out of the gate.”

Fisher, who spoke to WBFO one-on-one in advance of his installation, takes the diocesan leadership reins from Bishop Edward Scharfenberger of Albany, who served as Buffalo's apostolic administrator for about a year. Scharfenberger was named the interim leader in December 2019 upon the resignation of Bishop Richard Malone, who was heavily criticized for his handling of a clergy abuse crisis which emerged and quickly mushroomed in early 2018.

Malone, Scharfenberger, and retired Auxiliary Bishop Edward Grosz, all of whom were named as defendants in the New York State Attorney General's lawsuit against the Diocese of Buffalo, were also present for Bishop Fisher's installation.

Faluszczak says he has high hopes for Fisher, but urges him to "run for the hills" and distance himself from his former Washington, DC peer.

"If he wasn't coming. I probably wouldn't have even said anything today, because Buffalo has an opportunity for healing, and hope and high expectations," he said. "This should be a joyful day. And it's not, at least for the survivors, because of Cardinal Wuerl's proximity now to Buffalo."

 

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