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Albany Diocese Considers Uncertain Future During Siena Panel

It is a troubled time for the Catholic church and its flock. Roughly 80 priests in the Albany Diocese have been accused of sexual abuse and roughly 70 priests have been accused in Buffalo. Amid that troubling backdrop, Siena College hosted a “Let’s Rebuild Our Church” panel Saturday.

The panel included a priest, a professor of theology, and a survivor of sexual abuse who gathered to answer questions about how abuse in the church occurs and what is being done to stop it.

Father Tom Konopka of the Albany Diocesan Counseling Center is a social worker. He says when he entered the seminary in 1984 there were psychological tests, IQ tests, and several interviews. He says the process is even more thorough today, as New York state’s Child Victims Act helps focus attention on decades of alleged abuse within the church.

“Now there’s more letters of recommendation, a background check, and then there is a whole battery of psychological testing,” Konopka said. “I have read some of these and – without getting into confidentiality – they’re quite extensive.”

Konopka says even with all the tests and interviews, there is no way to guarantee a person would not sexually abuse a child.

“The question that comes up around the whole thing of sexual abuse is, ‘Can it be screened out,’” Konopka said. “Unfortunately, as far as I know, you’ve got to remember, I’m a clinical social worker, I’m not a psychologist, so I’m not able to do the testing, but as far as I know there’s not one instrument that will ever screen any type of, ‘Who will be the person that may abuse?’”

Konopka says social workers have to meet requirements periodically to keep their job, and priests should have to do the same.

“I have to have 36 credits every three years to keep a current license in social work,” Konopka said. “Ongoing formation in the priesthood… any of the lay ecclesial ministries – I think we need to have that same type of… it puts an importance to what we do.”

Sexual abuse survivor Paul Ehmann, who was on the panel, said his main concern is that people who abuse are likely to abuse again.

“From a transparency standpoint,” Ehmann said, “It’s important that if someone had been an abuser that if they were part of what seems to be the old regime of what they called in the teaching world, passing the trash, that if this priest were abusing someone it’s likely that they were going to abuse again. And it can be generational depending on how long a priest stays a priest.”

Konopka says providing transparency is easier said than done.

“I can’t give blanket transparency,” Konopka said. “I have HIPAA to deal with. Mental health records are privileged records. Substance abuse has another level of confidentiality. AHHIV has a strict level of confidentiality. So I look at it from the mental health world. And knowing what could happen if I just handed over a file without a subpoena. And even if it’s subpoenaed the file has to be looked at because if I have anything in a file from a psychiatrist, I can’t release that. That has to come from the psychiatrist.”

But Ehmann is hopeful because he says the law seems to be more involved in the process now than it was 15 years ago.

“The procedure within the diocese is to go to the law first,” Ehmann said. “You know, the days of priests taking care of priests and bishops taking care of priests prior to – I don’t know that they’re totally over but they seem to be over.”

Some audience members expressed that they simply want to move on as a community.

Citing drug use and suicide, Ehmann disagreed, saying that moving on for the survivors of abuse is not so easy.

“I was abused by four different men by the time I was 15,” Ehmann said. “So when I found alcohol and drugs that worked out well for me.”

Albany Bishop Edward Scharfenberger attended the panel as an audience member in “listening mode.” But he spoke with WAMC after the panel concluded.

Scharfenberger says there has never been a safer time for a child in the Catholic Church.

“The circumstances that we’re in right now with our ‘safe environment’ programs, that have been in place for the last 20 years at least, and our call to transparency to openness - I don’t really think there’s a safer environment to send a child than in the Catholic Church right now,” Scharfenberger said.

Scharfenberger says there were “only about 20 cases last year.” He says this is still 20 too many, but less than what it was years ago.

“I think right now given the procedures and policies we have in place it is a safe place,” Scharfenberger said. “Most of the abuse is historical – doesn’t mean that it doesn’t continue to affect those that experienced it. You know, even if it happened years ago.”

In 2019, the U.S. Roman Catholic Church said that allegations of child sex abuse by clerics more than doubled and that it spent above $300 million on victim compensation and child protection. The costs have led to some dioceses, like Buffalo and Rochester, New York and Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, to file for bankruptcy. Late last year, Scharfenberger was tapped to run the Buffalo Diocese on an interim basis after embattled Bishop Richard Malone’s resignation.

While lawyers of abuse survivors claim the Chapter 11 filing is intended to halt the discovery process, Scharfenberger says this restructuring is so that all victims can receive monetary compensation.

“We want to do this in a way that is fair,” Scharfenberger said. “So that all of those who are entitled to some form of restorative justice or restitution – if we want to use that word – will be able to get a fair share of that.”

Scharfenberger says the victims in Buffalo will have their day in court.

“There are many many views on bankruptcy as a good approach to take,” Scharfenberger said. “There are those that feel that because it stops the process of discovery that therefore it will freeze victim survivors out of being able to tell their story. I am confident at least in Buffalo, that the way this judge has spoken, is that that will not happen. So that everybody that has a claim can come forward. He wants to hear all sides. I do as well, too.”

But Scharfenberger is facing calls to resign himself, after he allowed priests who have been credibly accused of sexual abuse to celebrate Mass with him at St. Leo the Great Church in Amherst on February 24th. He spoke at a press conference in Buffalo last Friday.

“I have no way of controlling the individual behavior of an abusive priest,” Scharfenberger said. “But the purpose of last Monday’s meeting was in order to be able to inform all of the clergy including the charter priests – now not all of those – I don’t know that there was anybody there that’s been convicted. Criminally. I don’t know that. To the best of my knowledge not – There were some priests that were there that are on administrative leave because their cases are still in process. There were some – I think 5 or 6 in total – who credible accusations have been filed. So I did not exclude them from that gathering but I did not intend it as a public gathering in which I wanted in any way any victims to be offended.”

Scharfenberger says it is his job as bishop to assist not only the victims, but also the accused priests.

“I really consider every single person, including our priests who may have abused people, as part of our family that I’m responsible to take care of in some way,” Scharfenberger said. “Even though I realize that they have to be disciplined and in some cases isolated.”

According to the annual report of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Secretariat of Child and Youth Protection, in the United States, from 2017 to 2018, 1,385 adults came forward with allegations of abuse.

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