Waite: With bankruptcy filing, Catholic Diocese hides from accountability for sordid history

Four people seated in chairs

Clergy abuse survivor Stephen Mittler, right, smiles while meeting last week in Washington, D.C., with Roman Catholic officials including Albany Bishop Edward Scharfenberger, left rear. (Photo provided)

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Earlier last week, Stephen Mittler, who was repeatedly abused by a Catholic priest in the 1980s and ‘90s, met in Washington, D.C., with some of the church’s most powerful leaders. Roman Catholic Diocese of Albany’s Bishop Edward Scharfenberger accompanied Mittler during the meetings. 

In one picture from the trip shared on Mittler’s Facebook page, Scharfenberger sits back comfortably in a plushy chair, a big smile across his face. Of course, Mittler is smiling, too. 

That’s because, painful as it is to recall the rape and molestation he experienced as a teenager at then-Corpus Christi Church pastor Mark Haight’s cabin in Warren County, Mittler has accepted the important advocacy work in which he now engages following a $750,000 June settlement of a New York State Child Victims Act lawsuit against the Roman Catholic Diocese of Albany.

Mittler felt as though he was making progress at the meetings in Washington, where cardinals, archbishops and others from around the world – including Apostolic Nuncio Christophe Pierre, who is the Vatican’s ambassador to the United States government – seemed to value the need for transparency. 

“They clearly saw my point as I work to shed a different light on these underreported crimes,” Mittler posted to Facebook. “I asked each of them to go back to their dioceses/archdioceses and begin to share this perspective with their bishops and priests.”

Two days later, back in Albany, Bishop Scharfenberger made an announcement that takes the diocese in the complete opposite direction. 

On Wednesday, Scharfenberger announced the Roman Catholic Diocese of Albany had filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy, pausing settlements of Child Victims Act claims and a lawsuit filed by St. Clare’s pensioners. 

The tactic, which not only delays the diocese from having to make any payments but also halts court proceedings during which information could come out in the open, effectively turns the diocese into a black box. 

“It becomes a void where they don’t have to speak,” Mittler told me Wednesday following the bankruptcy announcement. 

During that announcement, Scharfenberger said he can’t offer any information about the timeline for when settlement actions may resume. 

We know from similar bankruptcy filings, including by the Buffalo diocese three years ago, that bankruptcy proceedings are often protracted. 

That means the roughly 400 abuse survivors with pending Child Victims Act claims against the Albany diocese, as well as the 1,100 former St. Clare’s hospital employees who had all or part of their pensions taken from underneath them in 2018, are left waiting. 

Scharfenberger said the Chapter 11 filing was a necessary step to keep the lights on. He said his financial manager was telling him that as a result of the dozens of settlements the diocese has already made, payroll was in serious jeopardy.

“In order to maintain our mission, we’re at a point right now where the next step needs to be to do this,” the bishop said. “We don’t see any other alternative.”

That’s a lie.

Law firms representing numerous abuse victims say the Albany diocese has more than $600 million in assets. No doubt, liquifying the $600 million would depend on selling real estate, which would effectively mean shuttering or largely scaling back operations. 

That’s exactly what the diocese should do. 

I know that the diocese’s network is vast and includes more than 316,000 Catholics in the area. It operates charitable organizations and runs schools. 

But, frankly, with the amount of abuse that’s come from members of the clergy – both in Albany and around the world – accompanied by a complete unwillingness to accept accountability, and ungodly efforts to cover it all up, is the church really living up to its mission? After ruining so many lives, at what point does the Albany diocese have to accept that, in too many ways, it has already failed? 

Those failures include letting down the 1,100 former St. Clare’s workers, who were promised retirement funds that vanished as a result of alleged mismanagement by the diocese. 

But what’s Scharfenberger worried about now? 

“We had come to the point where actually our financials were showing that we were going to have a shortfall in our ability to maintain our pension,” Scharfenberger said, referring to the Lay Employees’ Pension Plan of the Roman Catholic Diocese, which will not be impacted by the Chapter 11 filing. 

How nice of the diocese to worry about its own pension plan after neglecting the former St. Clare’s workers, who had 10 to 50 years of service and whose unpaid pension benefits total roughly $55 million.

No wonder Mary Hartshorne, who represents the former St. Clare’s workers, said: “I feel like this is just another hit in the back of the head.” 

State Sen. Jim Tedisco, who has been a staunch advocate for the St. Clare’s folks, called the bankruptcy declaration “shameful.” 

“They can run from their despicable actions and financial maneuverings, but they can’t hide from the Lord or the court of public opinion about what they did to all their victims,” Tedisco said in a scathing statement. 

Last summer, Mittler, now 48 and living in Saratoga Springs, told me that one of his most empowering moments as an abuse victim came during a settlement conference when he declared he no longer wanted to be known as “John Doe” and instead wanted to be identified by his name. 

He sensed then the backlash that church leaders feared would come if the details of Mittler’s story went public. 

Even though his case was settled before trial, Mittler did, in fact, share his story. 

And, oh, by the way, he has more than 6,000 pages of pretrial documentation that he’s ready to make public, too – he’s just exploring how to best put it together. 

“I was waiting for bankruptcy because I think it adds a little more credence to the coverup,” Mittler said Wednesday.  

Since going public, Mittler has realized he isn’t alone, that his family and friends too share the burden of abuse. That’s why he believes in being open about the past, a transparency that Pope Francis himself has called for. Mittler sees the need for collective healing. 

When Mittler was in Washington last week, he said, he believed the cardinals and archbishops with whom he spoke understood the message he was trying to send. He saw expressions of recognition. 

“I saw eyes widen with new understanding,” Mittler posted to Facebook. 

Mittler has embraced his role as being out there as a face of abuse. 

By contrast, the Albany diocese, with its bankruptcy filing this week, has only proved it is not willing to face its own sordid history. 

That makes me wonder what sort of future the diocese deserves. 

Columnist Andrew Waite can be reached at [email protected] and at 518-417-9338. Follow him on Twitter @UpstateWaite. 

Categories: Andrew Waite, News, Opinion

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