BUFFALO, N.Y. (WIVB) – On Friday, the Most Reverend Michael Fisher will be installed as the 15th Bishop of Buffalo, inheriting a Catholic diocese that has been hit with a number of sexual abuse-related lawsuits over the past 17 months, has filed for bankruptcy, and is now dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic.
“I’ve never said no to an assignment, and I’m not going to begin,” Fisher told News 4 on Thursday.
He comes to Buffalo after serving as auxiliary bishop in the Archdiocese of Washington. He says he understands the mistrust Catholics may have following a scandal, which led to the resignation and retirement of Bishop Richard Malone. Malone faced criticism for his handling of clergy abuse and misconduct allegations. Fisher says Malone called to offer congratulations after Pope Francis selected Fisher to replace him.
“I’ve been disappointed with the trust that has been lost,” Fisher said. “We can’t take for granted the goodwill that our people used to give our priests and our bishops. That trust has to be rebuilt. The only way we’re going to do that is by doing what we say.”
When asked who or what is to blame for the mistrust, Fisher said to “clericalism” across the Church.
“I think forgetting sometimes as priests and bishops what our missions is, truly to serve,” he added.
During the 25 minute discussion, Fisher foreshadowed changes, saying he would be looking at all of the diocese’s policies and procedures, specifying personnel and financial policies.
“We are always in need of evaluating the things that we do, whether that be our policies, our procedures for protecting our children,” he said. “There’s zero tolerance for any abuse of a child or an adult.”
Fisher points to work he did in Washington to help change personnel policies there.
The diocese has also been sued by the New York State Attorney General’s office, which claims in its suit, “In direct defiance of the (U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’) public commitment to reform, the Diocesan Corporation, through the conduct of its senior leadership, evaded key provisions of these standards, ignoring requirements for the investigation and review of alleged clergy sexual abuse.”
“I’m open to meeting with anybody that has a complaint,” Fisher said. “If it involves breaking of the law and abuse, I think we definitely need to work with the authorities.”
Between the bankruptcy filing in February 2020, and the COVID-19 crisis that followed, the diocese is navigating difficult financial waters. It has recently closed its Department of Youth and Young Adult Ministries and Office of Lifelong Faith Formation, as court filings detail.
“That’s a priority,” Fisher said of bankruptcy. “We have to get through that for the good and the benefit of the victims and survivors.”
“We need to get them what they need,” he added. “I think that was the good of the bankruptcy case, to help provide for their needs.”
Attorneys and advocates for victims see it differently. After the filing, some of them criticized the diocese and accused them of using bankruptcy to hide the truth.
“This is a move designed less to protect assets and more to protect secrets and prevent the public from getting the full truth about the scope of clergy abuse within its borders,” officials with the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests said at the time.
Fisher was unable to predict when the diocese may emerge from bankruptcy. However, he claimed he wanted to expedite the process as much as possible.
Chris Horvatits is an award-winning anchor and reporter who has been part of the News 4 team since 2017. See more of his work here.