NEW YORK — As Bishop Edward Scharfenberger, the temporary leader of the Diocese of Buffalo, considers whether to reinstate a whistleblower priest, further questions have emerged about both whistleblower protections and potential conflicts of interest regarding the priest in question.
Father Ryszard Biernat last year secretly recorded private conversations with Bishop Richard Malone in which the now disgraced bishop raised serious questions about his handling of abuse cases and diocesan personnel matters — including a matter involving Biernat himself.
Last September, Biernat – who served as Malone’s secretary – released the audio recordings to Buffalo’s WKBW, in which he and Malone discuss a situation involving correspondence that suggests a romantic relationship between Biernat and a former diocesan seminarian who had recently resigned.
The correspondence had been secretly photographed by another priest, Father Jeffrey Nowak, who allegedly also had a romantic interest in the seminarian.
In the exchange, Malone expresses fear that the surrounding controversy could lead to his forced resignation if the letter became public, calling it “a disaster.”
Soon thereafter, the Vatican ordered an investigation into Malone, resulting in his forced resignation last December. The day prior to that resignation, however, Malone issued a decree suspending Biernat from ministry, alleging that he had betrayed his office, and banned him from publicly celebrating the sacraments.
Following Malone’s resignation, Scharfenberger — who leads the diocese of Albany — was named apostolic administrator of the diocese and Biernat has sought to be reinstated so that he could apply for a position as a chaplain at a local hospital.
Scharfenberger has said he is considering reinstatement but “would like to have an actual conversation with him, so that part of the process of restorative justice or healing, he would be a part of,” but added that Biernat would need to show “accountability for his actions” before such a move is made.
According to the Buffalo News, Biernat is scheduled to meet with Scharfenberger later this month for a second time on March 11.
While Biernat said he welcomes the conversation, in a new interview with WKBW, Biernat defended his actions last fall, saying area Catholics “need to know how their bishop is in private, how their bishop is behind closed doors.”
“In the decree, they cite policies of secrecy, but isn’t that what led us into the trouble that we are in right now?” Biernat asked. “Secrecy…that we kept things secret and that everything is OK as long as people don’t find out.”
As Scharfenberger is weighing the decision, however, further controversy looms in the diocese, as the bishop has faced criticism for celebrating a Mass last month that included the participation of priests credibly accused of abuse.
Abuse survivors criticized the Mass, saying it was a sign of disrespect, which caused further trauma to them.
Scharfenberger issued an apology saying he regretted the “pain and further disillusionment” caused by the Mass, but said that under Church law, accused priests have the right to continue to celebrate Mass.
One priest of the diocese of Buffalo, who is in good standing, told Crux that priests suspended from ministry regularly get together to privately celebrate Mass or hold Eucharistic adoration, however, last month’s Mass marked a departure from the usual private nature of such gatherings, which included a luncheon for the priests.
Among the suspended priests who were present was Biernat, who took to Facebook to complain that another priest of the diocese, Father Art Smith, was present and whom Biernat has accused of sexual misconduct against him.
Biernat complained that Smith approached him at the gathering and said “‘he never wanted to hurt me — he just wanted to show me how much he loved me and how much he cared for me.’ He said this publicly in front of many priests. He said that he still loves me and it is all misunderstanding.”
Whether Biernat — who for some Buffalo Catholics is considered a whistleblower and for others is still navigating his own potential conflict of interests regarding his own relationship with a fellow seminarian — will be reinstated to ministry could likely be determined following next week’s meeting between Biernat and Scharfenberger.
In response to Crux’s request for comment, Greg Tucker, interim communications director for the diocese of Buffalo, said “these discussions with Father Ryszard are, by nature, a personnel matter and therefore confidential for his benefit.”
“The bishop continues to explore Fr. Ryszard’s future ministry with him and at the appropriate time, will communicate to the diocese his eventual role,” said Tucker.
(This article has been updated to include a statement from the diocese of Buffalo, which had not responded to Crux’s request for comment at the time of the original publication of the article.)
Follow Christopher White on Twitter: @cwwhite212
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