NEW YORK — When Auxiliary Bishop Michael Fisher of Washington is installed as the 15th bishop of Buffalo on Friday, he’ll be entering a diocese in the throes of controversy.
In November, 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.
Earlier this week, it was reported the diocese released more than 25,000 pages of documents related to clergy abuse, diocesan finances and personnel files to clergy abuse victims and their lawyers as part of the diocese Chapter 11 bankruptcy reorganization from early last year.
“I know there’s been great pain and hurt. Hopefully with Chapter 11, if there is a positive aspect, it’s that it helps us bring some help to (victim-survivors), but at the same time help the diocese move forward,” Fisher told Crux.
Fisher spoke with Crux ahead of his installation.
Crux: You’ve previously said that you’re coming to the Diocese of Buffalo “as a pastor.” What does that mean exactly?
Fisher: In a parish it’s all about the three c’s: Consultation, collaboration and communication.
Parish life, it’s about family, but it’s also about identifying people’s gifts and I see that as a bishop the same thing. It’s recognizing the gifts in our priests, our deacons. Sometimes it’s matching the right priest with the parish they might be asked to shepherd. Or also, the various leadership bodies and calling upon the expertise of the laity. That’s what I hope I bring as a pastor. The idea of great collaboration and communication with our people.
What will be your first priority once you are installed in the Diocese of Buffalo?
To listen to people, to engage with people, to get out to the parishes and get to know them. Get to know the priests and deacons, but also get to know the laity leadership here in the diocese and in the parishes. Ministry is not done from the office.
So just getting out there and hearing what the concerns are and also the dreams and the goals of our people. What is it they’re looking for? I don’t come with any preconceived notions and I know I have a lot of difficult decisions and issues to take care of. At the same time, it’s a joyful time where we’re able to rejoice in the gifts of the faith here in the diocese.
How will you approach the lawsuit brought forward by the New York State attorney general, the topic of cleric abuse that in many ways hangs over the diocese?
At this point I’m still assessing the implications of the lawsuit and proper responses. I still myself have to learn about that. I realize there will be some decisions right now that need to be made probably sooner rather than later. I’m not dodging any particular responsibility or decision, but the reality is I need to immerse myself in it.
I’m very deliberative when I make decisions. I like to collaborate and listen to people. These aren’t easy things to make snap decisions on. My overriding concern is to move the diocese forward so we can bring about healing amongst the people that have been hurt, the victim-survivors. But also, to move parishes forward so that we have the resources to do what we need to do. We need to restore credibility and trust.
And how do you restore credibility and trust? Some people might argue those are words they have heard before in situations that didn’t end particularly well.
I go back to my accounting experience. Transparency and accountability are important values when assessing businesses and those sorts of things. You have to test that and the way to test that is evaluating. It’s not what we say, but who we are. Demonstrating, carrying out the proper policies, procedures, protocols. They’re in place, but we have to make sure everyone knows who’s responsible for what and I think that always has to be evaluated.
We need to show that what we say we are doing and that something will be adjusted if it’s not working. That will be an important part to ensure we’re looking at transparency and accountability in our procedures and what we’re doing.
What about the diocese’s clergy abuse documents that were recently released to the cleric abuse victims? Have you given any thought to making those public?
When we’re dealing with files and things like that we need to make sure victim-survivors have the information they need, but at the same time we need to respect the privacy issues that occur with all of that. Then there needs to be a process in place for how and what kind of information is given out. We definitely want to cooperate with the Chapter 11 process.
Follow John Lavenburg on Twitter: @johnlavenburg