It is important that I once again address the topic which has caused so much pain for so many. You do not need me to remind you that grave sins and crimes committed by a small percentage of clergy have had wide-ranging and long-lasting effects both here in our diocese and in the worldwide Church. I am convinced that the best way to respond to complaints of past abuse and to restore trust in the Church and her clergy is to be as open and as transparent as reasonably possible in addressing the complaints and taking action against offending priests. Of course, given the nature of these complaints, some confidentiality in the process is required. As a result, we cannot share with the media or with all of you the details of a particular case or the basis for a particular decision. Unfortunately, much of the information disseminated in the media and private conversations is incorrect and leads to unfair criticism. Through this letter, I wish to share with you information about our processes so that you can better understand and, I hope, appreciate them.
Our primary goal is threefold: we need to protect God's children, to remove offending clergy from ministry, and to provide an appropriate response to victim survivors. I can assure you that a fourth and equally important goal is to protect innocent clergy who have been wrongly accused. The procedures we established to achieve these goals were not invented in the Diocese of Buffalo. Following the 2002 adoption by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops of the Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People, the conference established certain "Essential Norms" to be followed in the creation of diocesan policies and procedures for dealing with allegations of sexual abuse of minors by clergy. Those Essential Norms require compliance with canon law procedures when handling complaints against a member of the clergy.
When the diocese receives an allegation from a person who alleges abuse by a priest or deacon, we have a victim assistance coordinator, Jacqueline Joy, who prepares a report with the essential details of the complaint. At that point, we share the complaint with civil law enforcement in compliance with a memorandum of understanding that our diocese has with the district attorneys of the eight counties of the diocese.
When a cleric is accused, Bishop Edward M. Grosz will meet with him and review the allegations line by line while obtaining the cleric's responses. Sometimes the inquiry ends there if I determine after consultation that the accusation is "manifestly false or frivolous." For example, the complaint may contradict itself in irreconcilable ways. It may be clear from the location or the timing of the alleged abuse that the wrong cleric is being accused. We received one complaint, for example, from a man who claimed to be positive that a priest known to be an abuser was being assigned a position, and we were able to demonstrate to him that it was a different cleric with a similar name. On other occasions, we have provided younger photographs of the priest to a complainant who then withdrew the complaint against that particular priest. So there can be occasions when a complaint fails to have any semblance of truth, and we make no public announcement of the accusation against the cleric.
If the complainant alleges abuse committed by a particular cleric at a particular parish, and the cleric had been assigned to that parish at the time of the alleged abuse but denies the abuse, we are presented with a credibility dispute that cannot be resolved without an investigation. In such a circumstance, I will issue a canonical decree opening a preliminary investigation to give me a sense of probability (not certainty) that the alleged abuse did or did not occur. At that point, we place the cleric on administrative leave and make an announcement to that effect. We always emphasize that the administrative leave does not imply that any determination has been made as to the truth or falsity of the complaint. The cleric will be encouraged to retain civil and canonical counsel. A professional investigator will speak with the complainant and the cleric if they are willing. The investigator will accept any evidence that any party submits and speak with others who may know relevant information.
At the end of the investigation, the investigator will present his report to the Diocesan Review Board, established in compliance with the Essential Norms, to address such complaints. Over the years, the Review Board has included former judges and prosecutors, health care providers, various religious, and experts in the treatment of sexual abuse victims. The board also includes the promoter of justice, currently Msgr. W. Jerome Sullivan, JCD. I attend the Review Board meetings, and I can assure you that every member takes his or her work very seriously. They are all committed to treating both the alleged victims and the accused clergy fairly. The Review Board members pose questions to the investigator and sometimes require that additional investigation be conducted to answer certain questions. Neither the complainant nor the cleric is permitted to make a presentation to the Review Board because no trial has begun at this point. However, as noted above, we do inform the accused priest of all the allegations before the investigation begins, and any evidence or written submissions offered on behalf of the priest are provided to the investigator who presents the information to the Review Board.
The Review Board makes a recommendation to me as to whether the abuse likely did or did not occur. I then formulate my own opinion or "votum" on whether or not it seems probable that the abuse occurred. That votum - either way - must be sent to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith ("CDF") in Rome together with the underlying investigation materials. This requirement was established in 2001 by then pope, St. John Paul II in his motu proprio, "Sanctorum Sanctitatis Tutela," and is being followed now in our diocese.
If my votum is that the abuse likely did not occur, then we issue a public announcement to that effect, the administrative leave is ended, and either the vicar general or I will go the cleric's parish personally to announce his return. If, on the other hand, the allegations meet the required threshold, then an announcement to that effect is made, the priest remains on leave, and the votum together with other documents regarding the investigation, including any materials submitted by or on behalf of the cleric, is sent to the CDF. The CDF is most likely to remand the case to be processed in the tribunal in our diocese. If the court determines that the cleric is responsible for violation of the penal law, then the court may impose a just penalty, not excluding dismissal from the clerical state. A verdict of the court is subject to appeal to the Holy See.
I hope that this explanation of our processes gives you confidence that we are handling these claims as best we can. This system, like any other system of justice, is not perfect, but it is fair. With God's help, we will make it through this dark period in our history. Please keep me and all of our clergy in your prayers and know that you remain in mine. May Christ, the Eternal High Priest, protect and guide us and those we shepherd in His Name.