‘Sacrificial giving’ the key to restoring trust in Buffalo, says Bishop Scharfenberger

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Bishop Edward B. Scharfenberger of Albany, N.Y., is seen in a Jan. 21, 2015, photo. Pope Francis has accepted the resignation of Bishop Richard J. Malone of Buffalo, N.Y., and named Bishop Scharfenberger as Buffalo's apostolic administrator. (CNS photo/Bob Roller)

Bishop Edward Scharfenberger of Albany, New York, jokingly told Our Sunday Visitor that his family “just got a little bigger.”

“All things considered, all the concerns and anxieties aside, my trip to Buffalo midweek was very productive. We’re off to a good start,” Bishop Scharfenberger said a couple of days after he was introduced as the new apostolic administrator in the Diocese of Buffalo, New York.

Bishop Scharfenberger’s appointment was announced Dec. 4, the same day that the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops confirmed that Pope Francis had accepted the resignation of Bishop Richard J. Malone, who had led the Buffalo diocese since 2012.

The end of Malone’s seven-year tenure in Buffalo was marred by controversy and scandal over his handling of clergy sex abuse cases. He was alleged to have covered up cases and released an incomplete list of priests who had been credibly accused of sexual abuse. He lost the support of The Movement to Restore Trust, a local group of prominent Catholics who had worked with the diocese to address the abuse scandals. Two months ago, the group called on Bishop Malone to resign.

Located in upstate western New York, the Diocese of Buffalo includes about 700,000 Catholics in eight counties. Facing state and federal investigations, the diocese is also the target of numerous lawsuits filed since a new law expanded the state’s statute of limitations to allow civil claims related to decades-old cases of child sexual abuse. In all likelihood, the diocese will have to file for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection before a new permanent bishop is appointed.

“It’s going to be an interesting challenge,” Bishop Scharfenberger said.

Our Sunday Visitor: How are you going to lead two dioceses at the same time?

Bishop Scharfenberger: That’s an interesting question. Everybody wants to know who’s in charge. It is very important that there be someone [in Buffalo] who is a stable figure. I think the best you can do in a short period of time is two things: First, you provide a ministry of presence, let people know you’re there and you’re listening. And second, you do whatever you can to make sure the ship is running.

We all know the expression, “All hands on deck.” Well, no captain can run a ship just by sitting in the command post without a lot of help. As in most dioceses, I’m so blessed in Albany to have a wonderful staff that I can count on. They know what their work is, and they do it well.

I haven’t been in Buffalo long enough to [know] how their internal communications are and how we can get that coordinated. I have been working with the vicar general there, who is also the moderator for the [diocesan] curia, so I know there is already some coordination among department heads. Also, there are a lot of priests and lay people there who really want to rise up to the occasion and step up to the plate.

I believe in collaborative management. You manage accomplishing things through others. You set goals and you set them clearly, and then you make sure people know who they are accountable to. Those are basic principles of good management that don’t require a dictator or a knight in shining armor. We work together. It’s family.

Our Sunday Visitor: How do you begin to restore trust in Buffalo?

Bishop Scharfenberger: I’ll be honest, there is something about using the restoration of trust as a goal that doesn’t sit well with me. And this is what I mean: If you betrayed somebody, how do you bring trust back again? Obviously, you can’t buy it. If I was unfaithful to a friend, I can’t say to him, “How many gifts do I need to send you to win back that trust?” Actions speak louder than words. And I think, first of all, that whatever it was that broke the trust, those patterns of actions have to stop. That’s the first thing that has to be addressed.

Obviously, there’s room for apology and asking for forgiveness. That’s ongoing. But the way you restore trust in relationships is really by sacrificial giving. You give of yourself. You give the gift of time, the gift of presence, the gift of openness. And then you work together. It can’t be done by one person alone because it’s a relationship that’s been wounded, and there is always two sides to that. There has to be a give and take. It’s almost like in a marriage, where there have been wounds and maybe something was said or done. It takes two sides.

In our recent ad limina visit to Rome, Pope Francis sat down with us and said, “Look, we’re friends and we’re brothers, so let’s speak openly. Maybe we won’t always understand each other, but let’s just walk with one another and hear each other without fear.” That is the right tone to set, I believe.

Our Sunday Visitor: How often will you be in Buffalo?

Bishop Scharfenberger: About one day a week. Monday is the day I normally use to do odds and ends. So what I plan to do is, since Monday is the day I normally wouldn’t be expected in my office in Albany, that’s the day I’m going to use to be with the folks in Buffalo. It would be a long Monday. I would come out Sunday night and stay through Tuesday. But the good news is that because of telecommunications and live-streaming, it will be very possible for me to have conferences even while I’m still in Albany with groups of people in Buffalo. It’s all a challenge, but it’s not impossible.

Our Sunday Visitor: What would your Mondays in Buffalo entail?

Bishop Scharfenberger: I’m going to have to do a lot of work with the folks at the Catholic Center, the administrative offices of the Diocese of Buffalo. I have to be sure I have regular time with them. So a few hours would be spent to see how everybody is doing there.

Also, there are a number of priests, parish leaders and others from the larger community that might want to meet with me personally, so I would arrange to have meetings with people who have concerns they want to bring to me. Also, as much as possible, I would like to get out into the parishes. I may not be able to do many confirmations, but if there is anything going on on a Monday night, a parish celebration or an opportunity for me to speak with a larger group of people and do a Q&A, I would do some of that too.

Our Sunday Visitor: Do you anticipate implementing any new policy or administrative changes?

Bishop Scharfenberger: The norm of the law is sede vacante nihil innovetur; Latin for “when a see is vacant, as when a bishop resigns, that nothing is to be innovated.” However, since I am an apostolic administrator appointed by the Holy See, the scope of what I can do is as broad as that of a diocesan bishop. But I still must respect that principle of innovation, out of respect for the permanent successor who will be appointed. I will make changes, but those changes will be more in terms of things that immediately need to be looked at. I’m not going to flip the house, so to speak, gut it and change everything. That would be foolish, because first of all, I don’t have enough time to do all that. What I need to do is make sure the house is secure.

I’m probably not going to make major policy decisions except those that need to be dealt with immediately. For example, I want to make sure the system for the reporting of incidents of sexual abuse, the processing of cases, reporting them to the civil authorities, that all that is operating as it should. I want to make sure the review board is getting the support it needs to do its job well. That clearly has to be done. There have also been questions about transparency and concerns of coverups. I will not hesitate to do whatever is necessary to restore trust, and that there is transparency.

Our Sunday Visitor: Would you consider calling in the local district attorney to review the Buffalo diocese’s records on clergy sex abuse as you did in Albany?

Bishop Scharfenberger: Yes, absolutely. As you know, there are several investigations going on right now. We have the New York State Attorney General looking at all the dioceses. And from what I understand, there are federal and state investigations going on, in Buffalo in particular. Whatever I would do, [it] would have to not be seen in any way as impeding those investigations. That having been said, I’ll do anything I can do to bring in more light. Certainly, if the district attorney would want to have access to any records or files, that would be something I would be very open to. But I want to be sure whatever is done promotes credibility and doesn’t seem like a stunt. My concern is that whatever is done is done in a very objective, non-prejudicial way that can’t be perceived as a public relations move. I want it to be real.

Our Sunday Visitor: Do you anticipate the Diocese of Buffalo will need to file for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection while you are the apostolic administrator?

Bishop Scharfenberger: I think that’s a likelihood. I think that has to be faced, and sooner rather than later. I would probably be the one to make that ultimate call, but I would want to make sure there wasn’t any other reasonable option. My major concern is that whatever is done would not impact negatively on the rights and interests of victims who would have claims. Obviously, the diocese also has to be able to operate its spiritual and pastoral mission. The purpose of Chapter 11 would be to protect both the legitimate claims as well as the diocese’s needs to have the necessary resources to do its mission. If that’s the best way to do it, then that’s what we’ll do.

Our Sunday Visitor: When did you learn you were going to be appointed the apostolic administrator for Buffalo?

Bishop Scharfenberger: I got the official call from the [papal nuncio to the United States] just before we were going to leave for the ad limina in early November. He told me he was going to propose my name to the Holy See, that Bishop Malone would be stepping aside, and that the announcement would be made very shortly after the ad limina. Nothing was said when we were in Rome during the ad limina. But on the Sunday after we got back [Nov. 17], I got a call from the nuncio saying that the Holy Father had accepted the recommendation and would be appointing me, and that the announcement would be made in early December. That’s how it happened.

Our Sunday Visitor: What did you think when you first learned that you would be overseeing the Buffalo diocese?

Bishop Scharfenberger: Needless to say, I think we all saw that something was going to have to change. I suppose we were all wondering how it was going to happen. In the usual way that these things do happen, there is a resignation, an administrator and a successor appointed. When I got the call, I thought, “Okay, well I am the neighbor down the block. Who else would they ask?”

Brian Fraga is a contributing editor for Our Sunday Visitor.