Pope Francis has accepted the resignation of Bishop Richard J. Malone of Buffalo, New York,…
In embattled Buffalo, bishop sees ‘instilling hope’ as his mission
On the job for barely five months, Bishop Michael W. Fisher of Buffalo, New York, knows that the task at hand is a tall one.
“There is a lot of work that needs to be done here,” Bishop Fisher, 63, said in a recent interview with Our Sunday Visitor.
The Diocese of Buffalo is restructuring after having filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection last year. Clergy sex abuse survivors filed more than 250 lawsuits under a New York state law that extended the statute of limitations for old sex abuse claims.
Also last November, New York’s attorney general sued the diocese and other local Church leaders, including former Bishop Richard Malone, alleging that they covered up years’ worth of allegations of sexual misconduct.
Bishop Malone resigned in December 2019 after his own staff, priests and laity repeatedly called on him to step down over his handling of clergy sexual misconduct allegations. The situation in Buffalo prompted the Vatican in 2019 to order an apostolic visitation of the diocese.
Installed Jan. 15 at St. Joseph Cathedral in Buffalo, Bishop Fisher faces the daunting task of not only restoring broken trust between the lay faithful and their Church, but also guiding the diocese through the legal challenges and a major reorganization at a time when the nation is still emerging from a pandemic.
“It’s all about seeing ourselves not just in terms of our own parochial bubble. We’re all dependent on one another. We’re all part of the same diocese,” said Bishop Fisher, a native of Baltimore who spent the last two years as an auxiliary bishop in the Archdiocese of Washington, where he spent 30 years as a priest.
Our Sunday Visitor: You’ve been the bishop in Buffalo now for almost five months. How would you describe your experience thus far?
Bishop Michael Fisher: Certainly we have many challenges, but the main thing that I’ve experienced is the warmth, the depth of the welcome and the faith of the people here in western New York. I grew up in Baltimore, and most of my ministry was in Washington, D.C. I lived there all my life, so to move up here was a whole new experience for me. I had never even been to this part of the country. I didn’t have any relatives. What has really impressed me is just the pride that the people up here have in their city and the region here in western New York, but also in the Church. They love their Church.
Our Sunday Visitor: The Church in Buffalo is still feeling the trumatic effects of clergy sexual abuse scandals. How do you restore trust?
Bishop Fisher: I tried to address that right from the beginning in my installation homily. I’m one of these people who expects to be judged really by not just by what I say but by what I do. I think I’m walking the walk. I want to help bring meaningful change and accountability to certainly my ministry as well as to how the diocese carries out its mission and its work.
I’ve made it very clear that I have zero tolerance for any member of the clergy, employee or volunteers who would commit an abuse against a child or an adult. Our policies, our protocols are very clear in this matter. I think we always need to be reviewing those and making sure we’re following them to ensure that everyone knows who’s responsible for what, that they’re accepted and they’re implemented in a proper way. I can’t promise that any individual isn’t going to violate trust or to engage in behavior that may be contrary to our Gospel values. But what I hope people will expect — and what I can guarantee — is that we will follow our policies and those individuals will be dealt with in a proper manner.
Beyond just the clergy sex abuse crisis, building trust is also about empowering others. More and more of our laity want a voice. They want to see more leadership and a sharing in our parishes and in our diocese. Part of my work as a pastor was identifying the gifts and the talents of my people, and helping them to come to know that’s a part of their baptismal call and putting their capabilities to work for the Church. This is a shared responsibility between clergy and laity. All of us have a responsibility for the mission of our Church. I hope to be an instrument in helping to bring that about.
Our Sunday VIsitor: Besides saying that existing protocols, policies and procedures will be followed, what else are you doing to show the faithful that real change will happen?
Bishop Fisher: What started, even before I got here, was the Road to Renewal. I think part of the whole idea of renewal is the aim to bring about greater accountability and trust, better communication and collaboration between parishes in the diocese, and how we do things. These are challenging, but I think that’s part of what Road to Renewal is all about. It’s about moving the Church forward but also not leaving anyone behind.
Part of my ministry, before I came here, was working with abuse victims. I’m very much open to meeting with anyone that wants to meet with me. I realize as I’m getting started here that there might be some challenges to my calendar and trying to coordinate meetings, but I am trying to make that a priority, and anyone who would like to meet with me, I will do so.
Our Sunday Visitor: What is the status of the lawsuit the New York State Attorney General filed against the Diocese of Buffalo last November?
Bishop Fisher: I can’t get into too much with that. We are still working to resolve that lawsuit. We’re being responsive to their requests and hopefully responsive to ways that we can address their concerns that were brought to us and to fully cooperate, and to hopefully to bring a resolution to it within the near future.
Our Sunday Visitor: Did you ever get to see or read the report from the apostolic visitation that Bishop Nicholas DiMarzio of Brooklyn conducted?
Bishop Fisher: I never saw that report. Certainly I had an opportunity to talk to Bishop DiMarzio a little bit about his visit here. In our discussion in regards to all of that, he was encouraging me to expand my circle of collaboration and advice to a broader population here, beyond just the diocese. Here in western New York, we have wonderful educational institutions, and there are people here who are resources I need to look to and to call upon.
Our Sunday Visitor: What are your short-term and long-term goals for the diocese?
Bishop Fisher: My short-term goals are to get to know all the parishes and the people, to get out. COVID has restricted me from doing that. I’m jumping into that now. The key is to know the people and their gifts, and hopefully, as we emerge from the COVID situation, we can begin to come together, emerging from our hibernation and again look at how we can resolve our issues together.
Second, to see the Road to Renewal moving forward. I put a little bit of a pause to it, because I thought not enough consultation had been done on it with various groups that are now being taken care of. So moving the renewal forward and the restructuring of the diocese, as well as the moving of the mission of the parish forward.
I think our schools face great struggles and challenges; we’re looking at our schools particularly right now. Also, to successfully get through all of our Chapter 11 reorganization, as well as addressing the attorney general’s concerns with what we’re doing here. That’ll put us in a much stronger position to renew the confidence and the determination of our people to move forward.
Our Sunday Visitor: In terms of evangelization, how do you revitalize the Diocese of Buffalo, which is facing similar demographic challenges as the greater Church in the Northeast?
Bishop Fisher: I see my role as bishop as trying to help instill a sense of mission. The mission is given to us: the Gospel, the Good News of the risen Lord. What that mission is, is instilling hope. I don’t want to sugarcoat anything. We have many challenges that we have to face. But I think sometimes we can be handicapped in the sense that we don’t see any way out of it. We don’t see any hope moving forward. Part of that, I think, is that it’s essential for me that I can’t just sit behind a desk all the time being reactive. I have to be proactive and get out.
Our Sunday Visitor: You’ve been described as humble “Bishop Mike” in some media reports. Do you think a humble posture is almost a necessity for a bishop today?
Bishop Fisher: I think humility is certainly essential. When we lack humility, that leads to things like clericalism and presenting as someone who doesn’t listen. I’m a relatively shy person. I think it’s inherent in my family. But I realize I have to sometimes get out there and I need to speak and be in front of the public. I just hope that I can be as genuine as possible, that what you see is what you get. But humility, I think praying for humility, is something that we always need to do. Humility is what leads us into understanding that it’s not what we do, it’s what the Lord is doing in us and for us.
Brian Fraga is a contributing editor for Our Sunday Visitor.