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NEW YORK – The Diocese of Buffalo has agreed to enact more secular oversight of its response to complaints of clergy sexual abuse in a legal settlement with New York State attorney general Letitia James, resolving a 2020 lawsuit that accused the diocese of long mishandling the allegations.
Per the settlement, the diocese has appointed a child protection policy coordinator to ensure child protection policies and protocols are followed, and it has committed to a step-by-step documented process to ensure full transparency in addressing sexual abuse complaints.
The settlement also bans Bishop Emeritus Richard Malone and former Auxiliary Bishop Edward Grosz from holding any secular fiduciary role with a charity registered in New York for life. Neither, however, is barred from taking on a ministerial, pastoral, or spiritual role in any New York diocese.
In a statement, James said the settlement ensures accountability.
“In choosing to defend the perpetrators of sexual abuse instead of defending the most vulnerable, the Buffalo Diocese and its leader breached parishioners’ trust and caused many a crisis of faith,” James said in an Oct. 25 statement. “As a result of this action, the Buffalo Diocese will now begin a much-needed era of independent oversight and accountability, and my office will continue to do everything in its power to restore trust and transparency for the future.”
James brought the lawsuit against the Diocese of Buffalo in November 2020 following a two-year investigation that found Malone and Grosz mishandled child sexual abuse claims by failing to conduct proper investigations into clergy sexual abuse accusations.
The step-by-step process outlined in the settlement includes an independent investigator being appointed upon receipt of a complaint, and a 45-day timeline for all investigations to be completed.
The diocese’s lay review board must also now provide its recommendation for each investigated case in writing. And the diocese has to make public disclosures throughout the process, including posting the lay review board’s recommendation on its website, publicly disclosing names of accused clergy who are suspended pending investigations, and reporting on all substantiated complaints. The diocese will refer all complaints it receives to law enforcement and cooperate with any investigations as well.
Further, the settlement codifies the Priest Supervision Program that Bishop Michael Fisher of Buffalo implemented last June. Under the program accused clergy in the diocese will be assigned an individual monitor with law enforcement experience to ensure compliance with a list of restrictions.
The restrictions for supervised clergy include not saying Mass or taking confessions, wearing their collar or living in close proximity to children or a school.
Credibly accused priests will also be supervised.
To ensure compliance with the new court-ordered program the Diocese of Buffalo will complete an annual compliance audit that will be conducted by an independent compliance auditor that is approved by the Attorney General’s office and employed by the diocese. The audit period will last for a minimum of three years, with a potential extension to five years. The report must be posted to the diocesan website.
Dr. Kathleen McChesney, former executive assistant director at the FBI and first director of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops Office of Child Protection, will serve in this role. Because of the diocese’s pending petition for Chapter 11 Bankruptcy, her appointment will not take effect until it’s approved by the United States Bankruptcy Court for the Western District of New York.
Melissa Potzler, a former assistant district attorney for Erie County, N.Y., and the recent parish life coordinator at Nativity of Our Lord Parish in Orchard Park, N.Y. will be the diocese’s new child protection policy coordinator.
In a news release, the diocese highlights that most of the stipulations outlined in the settlement are already a part of the diocese’s policies and protocols that have been developed since the USCCB implemented the Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People in 2002.
Fisher said the diocese hopes the new and enhanced initiatives show the diocese’s commitment to accountability and transparency regarding clergy sexual abuse complaints.
“We hope that these initiatives, along with our commitment to producing an additional detailed annual compliance audit by an independent auditor, will provide further evidence of our commitment to the level of accountability and transparency that all Catholic faithful and the broader public rightly deserve and require,” Fisher said in an Oct. 25 statement.
The Oct. 25 settlement between the Diocese of Buffalo and James is the first legal action taken against a Catholic diocese in New York, after the attorney general’s office launched an investigation into all eight New York dioceses in September 2018. The other seven investigations remain ongoing.
Follow John Lavenburg on Twitter: @johnlavenburg