NEW YORK — In an introductory teleconference Tuesday morning, Auxiliary Bishop Michael Fisher of Washington emphasized his collaborative, cooperative, and communicative approach to ministry that he will bring to the Diocese of Buffalo as its new bishop.
Fisher comes to 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, former Bishop 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,” 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.”
Accountability and transparency are areas the diocese fell short over the years that put it in this position.
In a statement last week, 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.
“Individuals who are victims of abuse deserve to have their claims timely investigated and determined, and the Buffalo Diocese refused to give them that chance,” she said.
Fisher’s installment in the diocese – 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 that time, he was made vicar general for the apostolates in 2005 by laicized ex-Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, who was later credibly accused of child sexual abuse and other sexual misconduct. In 2006, Cardinal Donald Wuerl appointed him Vicar for Clergy and Secretary for Ministerial Leadership, a position he has held for the last twelve years.
Lay Catholics reacted to the appointment with hope that Fisher can turn the diocese around, but some also have a wait and see approach. That was the sentiment from Kevin Brun – a diocese of Buffalo abuse survivor who spoke with WKBW, the ABC Buffalo affiliate.
“I’m hopeful for the survivors’ sake that he will come in and do the right thing. I’m hopeful again, but I have had my hopes dashed before,” Brun told WKBW.
John Hurley of the Movement to Restore Trust – a lay group from Buffalo created last year in the wake of the 2018 sex abuse crisis in the diocese – said in a statement that the organization supports the appointment and looks forward to working together.
“He must lead a process that is both legal and pastoral and create a church that is focused on healing and reconciliation,” Hurley said. “We are greatly encouraged that Bishop Fisher considers himself first and foremost a pastor. May God bless him, the Holy spirit guide him in his pastoral responsibilities to the Diocese of Buffalo.”
In a statement, Cardinal Wilton Gregory, Archbishop of Washington, called Fisher an “exceptionally compassionate and skilled servant of the church.”
“His distinguished history as pastor, vicar for priests, and member of our Pastoral Administration have prepared him well for his new responsibilities in that diocese,” Gregory said.
In his remarks, Fisher re-emphasized the diocese zero tolerance policy for any abuse of children of sexual harassment of adults and said it’s crucial to listen and support 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 out ministry,” Fisher said. “I am committed to certainly transparency and working with all of the people of the diocese to help move forward.”
However, Fisher wouldn’t commit to removing anyone mentioned in the lawsuit that still holds a position of power in the diocese – particularly diocesan attorney Terry Connors and Msgr. David LiPuma. He said he needs to meet everybody before any decisions are made.
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