Several years ago, a priest at one of the Buffalo Mass Mob churches exchanged views with me about the administration of the Diocese of Buffalo. “Corporate Jesus,” he called it. He didn’t have to explain – I got it right away. And I never forgot it. When I’ve told the story to fellow Catholics, they nod in agreement. In too many ways, it seems, our faith leaders act as if they are running a corporation, not a church.
This is what came to mind seeing Sunday’s report on 60 Minutes. The report builds on months of outstanding local journalism, and provides a devastating indictment of how our diocese has handled cases of clergy sex abuse the many suffering victims. In the report, whistleblower Siobhan O’Connor “says she tried to get the bishop to be more responsive to them. He would tell her it’s not her concern.” Corporate. In the report, O’Connor also talks about the lawyers and strategies the diocese was utilizing to deal with the scandal, saying, “…to my mind the overarching attitude seemed to be to protect the church’s reputation and her assets.” Corporate.
In the report, Father Bob Zilliox said, “I think one of the factors that goes into decision making in terms of administration or leadership within diocese or in parishes is that there’s a certain brotherhood. There’s a certain mindset that we watch each other’s backs.” Corporate. Deacon Paul Snyder said, “He’s behaving in a way that you would typically think that a CEO in a corporation that’s being accused of corrupt practices might act, hiding behind attorneys.” Corporate.
I wish I could say that my own experience with the bishop has been better, but I can’t. I first met him in the spring of 2013, not long after he assumed his role, and the Sunday after the diocese announced their intention to tear down St. Ann’s Church. Several of us involved in the St. Ann’s issue attended a special Mass on the waterfront so that we could talk with the bishop afterward. I’d had a friendly relationship with his predecessor, Bishop Kmiec, whom I’d met while I was in the process of becoming Catholic. I assumed the new bishop was simply being ill-advised, and the main point I wanted to make was that the community would block the demolition, so pushing it would just cause unnecessary ill-will.
We approached the bishop hopefully, but were disappointed. He responded in talking points, which is a classic PR move to say nothing of substance while running out the conversational clock. When we attempted to push past the talking points, he got tense and authoritarian with us, at one point ordering us, “Let me speak!” He then reiterated some talking points and ended the conversation. At least, as a result, we knew what we were up against.
Still, I have to say the bishop has done some things I appreciate. Teaming up with the Episcopal bishop to remind Buffalo’s leadership that as the city revives economically we need to make sure we don’t leave anyone behind was a unique, savvy, ecumenical gesture. The early, sustained promotion of the Pope’s encyclical on the environment was also encouraging. And I cheered when the 2014 round of Catholic school closings kept all Buffalo Catholic elementary schools open, due to an arrangement with the BISON fund.
Yet, as someone who spent a couple of decades doing consulting, much of the recent leadership from the Catholic Center looks an awful lot like corporate initiatives and PR campaigns. The bishop urged churches to read the popular (in church circles) book, Rebuilt, with its formula for church growth that draws “on the wisdom gleaned from thriving mega-churches and innovative business leaders… .” The diocese bought into the “Catholics Come Home” campaign, which is about as corporatist a response as you could imagine to declining church attendance – right down to the characterization of the TV ads as “evangomercials.” And the way the bishop ignored the Mass Mob, an initiative begun in his own diocese during his time as bishop, that was embraced nationally to the point where the archbishop of Detroit recorded a video greeting welcoming all to that city’s first Mass Mob, reminded me of the way corporations like Kodak and Xerox gave the cold shoulder to innovations that came from within their own ranks, such as digital photography and the graphical user interface.
And then there was the “Upon This Rock” fundraising campaign. While it was a significant accomplishment, it was also one of the most corporate things our diocese has ever done. The Bishop set an ambitious goal of raising $100 million, separate from the annual Catholic Charities appeal. The campaign actually beat its goal, and the money will be put to worthy ends and address vital needs. Yet a priest familiar with the campaign told me its genesis was a detailed analysis by the diocese of the finances of local Catholics, a conclusion of which was that a large amount of money would pass into inheritances within the next decade if it wasn’t captured now.
Not only, I was told, did the diocese produce individual estimates of what wealthy Catholics could (and should) contribute, but actually directed their priests to meet with those individuals to ask them for it. Churches were also given ambitious collective targets, and priests were pressured to meet them. How do we know that? Because one of them, Father Roy Herberger, then priest of Ss. Columba-Brigid Church, tried to push back, telling the diocese that as the priest of a low-income, inner-city church, he couldn’t in good conscience ask the people for that much money. In response, Auxiliary Bishop Grosz ordered Father Roy to either make the request or submit his resignation. So he made the request, at the same time openly sharing with his congregation exactly what had transpired. The aggressive effort of the campaign to, essentially, search the seat cushions of the diocese for every last coin led it to be popularly dubbed, “Under This Rock.”
Oh, and let’s not forget St. Ann’s Church and Shrine. Last year, when the diocese won its appeal at the Vatican to gain the right to finally close the church – an appeal on which it spent an estimated $50,000 – it never contacted the president of the Friends of St. Ann’s. Instead, it leaked the information to the local media, which then contacted the president of the Friends of St. Ann’s. On the same day he was conducting the wake for his mother. And because he wasn’t at home, the media reached him at the funeral home for comment. I would call that corporate, but it doesn’t even rise to that level – it was an underhanded, intentional slight and hurt. If a bank decides to foreclose on your house, at least they give you the bad news directly.
How did this chilly corporate wind blow into our diocese? Originally from New England, Richard Malone rose through the church ranks and made a name for himself with his management skills. There, he was also involved in handling controversial abuse and church closing issues, perhaps using a strong hand to manage them with a minimum of muss and fuss – at least, from the perspective of his superiors, if not of those directly affected. His star on the rise, he then came here, to a place with one of the oldest, deepest, proudest Catholic traditions in the nation, where people not just value, but demand authenticity. Given that, it was perhaps only a matter of time before his management skills and corporate polish proved not to be enough. Up against a scandal of monumental proportions, his methods fell short and his mantle wore thin, revealing a man of little substance with a glaring lack of empathy. Especially telling about the man is, despite his accomplishments here, how quickly people turned on and abandoned him.
The bishop who once received a warm welcome from Catholics and local leaders, and puff pieces in the media about how he named his dog “Timon” after the first bishop of Buffalo, is now a man under siege. The 60 Minutes report was devastating, because it removes the possibility that anyone might see the scandal as just a bunch of old issues fanned into flame by overzealous reporting. No media spoke against the bishop on Sunday night’s report, but rather clergy – including the bishop’s former legal adviser – and the bishop’s former administrative assistant. The revelation about a critical binder of abuse documentation being misplaced in a broom closet leaves his management reputation forever tarnished. As of this week, Bishop Malone is now the national face of the clergy sex abuse scandal, and it’s almost inconceivable that he’ll retain his position. Look for a resignation before the end of the year. Also, look for a Pulitzer Prize for the reporting that led to it. Bishop Malone badly underestimated our people and our media.
Yet it would be a mistake to see the bishop as a cause rather than a symptom of problems in our diocese and, indeed, the American church. It has not been immune to the corporatism has infiltrated every aspect of American life over the last few decades. First, it took over the Republican Party, and a decade later the Democrats, desperate to remain competitive, also succumbed. It has become so pervasive in nearly every institution, from agriculture to retail to local government to schools to public safety to colleges and to universities that it’s easy to not recognize it.
Sadly, corporatism has even come to dominate the church. Decisions that affect parishes are increasingly made at the Catholic Center, which one priest celebrating the 50th anniversary of his ordination derisively dubbed, “The Tower of Power.” Church closings are decided the way a retail corporation might decide where to close an existing branch and open a new one. Schools that parishes once ran were taken over by a centralized hierarchy which then consolidated and closed schools without regard for the people of the parishes who gave their dollars and cents to build and run them. We solve problems not by rolling up our sleeves and working through them, and getting our hands dirty touching actual people in need, but by hiring consultants and attorneys, and running slick PR campaigns.
The phrase “woke” has become popular in recent years, and to some simply means shifting to a more liberal mindset. But to me, “woke” means recognizing that our institutions have failed us by growing dangerously out of touch with the people they are supposed to benefit and serve. All too often, as we see in the Diocese of Buffalo, the power structure devolves into an instrument for protecting those at the top – a “brotherhood,” as Father Zilliox said in the 60 Minutes report.
One thing I’ve sadly observed during my involvement with the Buffalo Mass Mob, visiting churches and interviewing priests, parishioners, and lay leaders is that all this corporatism and centralization and downsizing has left the laity out in the cold, and – like any muscle not exercised regularly – lay leadership has atrophied. I find many Catholics who are as angry as hell at the hierarchy, yet don’t know what to do with their anger except become, variously, jaded, disengaged, bitter. That makes the exceptions, like the folks of St. Adalbert’s, site of the first and next Buffalo Mass Mob (stay tuned for more), who successfully fought to keep their church from being closed, all the more notable.
The Catholic laity, God bless us all, is well versed in serving in church organization and leadership roles, serving on parish councils or finance committees, visiting sick and shut-in parishioners, putting on church dinners, and organizing lawn fetes. These are fundamental, bedrock activities that keep churches functioning even in the face of poor leadership and decisions from the hierarchy. But because of that hierarchy being at the core of Catholic culture, Catholics in general have little experience with other aspects of leadership and organization such as speaking truth to power, demanding better, holding those in power accountable, agitating for positive change, and effective resistance to ill-considered decisions.
This scandal is causing the laity all over the diocese to get woke. But the question is, will the laity also produce the leadership to channel the anger and concern into positive change? Could someone like whistleblower Siobhan O’Connor or Deacon Paul Snyder provide that leadership? Perhaps together? Whether them or someone else, what western New York Catholics need is prayerful, thoughtful, steady-handed, effective leadership to create a movement of laity to turn the leadership model we have lived under for so long on its head.
The Jesus of the gospels was the people’s Jesus. The Church is not a corporation, the Church is people.