It’s hard to drive more than a few blocks in South Buffalo without running into a stately, century-old Roman Catholic church. The working-class neighborhood, full of large, turn-of-the-century houses split into flats, has produced a long list of Irish Catholic lawmakers – most of them Democrats, many with complex views on social issues that don’t always fall along party lines. The polarizing and larger-than-life Jimmy Griffin, who occupied the Buffalo mayor’s office from 1978 through 1993, came from the neighborhood. Rep. Brian Higgins is from those same streets, as are state Sen. Tim Kennedy and newly seated Assemblyman Patrick Burke.
While the neighborhood has diversified in recent decades, as African-Americans and Latinos have moved in, the white Catholic identity remains predominant. The Catholic Church has served as a central gathering point, a social mechanism and a source of power for the community.
For as long as Catholics have been filling the pews in Western New York, church leadership has exerted great power in the neighborhoods and in the halls of government. “Growing up, there was a clear deference to whatever the priests wanted,” said Burke, himself a practicing Catholic. “They sort of controlled everything that was part of that social life.”
As has been the case in so many Catholic communities, the Buffalo Diocese’s response to allegations of sexual abuse has shaken the church to its core. New documents, obtained from a whistleblower by investigative reporter Charlie Specht and reported throughout 2018, showed a pattern of accused priests returning to the ministry in Western New York that was previously unknown. That has contributed to a new political dynamic: Democrats from South Buffalo are engaging in public battles with the church rarely seen before the sex abuse scandals became public, and they are planning to vote with their party for the Child Victims Act, potentially clearing the bill’s path to passage.
This past summer, amid a flood of new reporting on the diocese’s secretive and callous handling of sexual abuse accusations, Burke became the first lawmaker to call on Bishop Richard Malone, who has defended his handling of the crisis and refused to resign, to step down. Others, including Kennedy and Higgins, followed.
A decade ago, South Buffalo lawmakers publicly calling for a bishop to resign would have been unthinkable. Given the influence that church leaders had with constituents in heavily Catholic districts, challenging them publicly would be a huge political risk.
Massimo Faggioli, a professor of theology and religious studies at Villanova University, said that the public’s distrust of the church as a result of these scandals has changed that dynamic. “I think that it’s a sign that the Catholic Church has lost that kind of support from many Catholics,” he said.
The disconnect between the church, Catholic politicians and their constituents has been growing for some time. But the growing list of sex abuse scandals has brought a new era in the relationship. “Catholic politicians no longer want to be seen as accomplices of the Catholic Church, especially on the issue of the sex abuse crisis,” Faggioli said.
The Child Victims Act is a response to the sex abuse crisis and a reflection of how it has altered New York politics. With Democrats taking control of the state Senate, it appears that the bill – which would lengthen the statute of limitations for sexual abuse victims in both criminal and civil cases – will become law. It has previously passed the Democratic-controlled Assembly and it is supported by Gov. Andrew Cuomo, but it had been blocked by the Republican-controlled state Senate despite overwhelming public support.
Opposition among Republicans has generally been ascribed to the Catholic Church’s concern about being opened up to massive liability in potential lawsuits. Dennis Poust, the director of communications for the New York State Catholic Conference, a group that represents dioceses across the state, said the church is concentrating on helping victims, not on its influence at the state Capitol. “The Church’s focus is first and foremost on supporting victim-survivors of abuse and helping them to heal, and secondly, on regaining the trust of our people by being transparent about what has occurred in the past and by continuing to build on the safe-environment policies that have been put into place to protect children today,” Poust wrote in an emailed statement.
Before The Boston Globe first published its groundbreaking investigation into sexual abuse and cover-ups in the Boston Archdiocese, politicians in heavily Catholic states like New York and Massachusetts were extremely cautious about any disagreements with the Catholic Church. But, with the sex abuse scandals – and perhaps other societal changes, as well – that is evolving.
Many Catholic Democrats, perhaps most famously former New York Gov. Mario Cuomo, have had complicated political stances on abortion. Cuomo argued that it was his obligation not to impose his Catholic faith, and its opposition to abortion rights, on a pluralistic society. By contrast, his son, Gov. Andrew Cuomo, has hardly discussed his Catholicism at all, although he has been criticized by a conservative Catholic theologian for taking communion while living with a girlfriend.
These kinds of divisive issues have bubbled up in Buffalo before. Higgins, the Buffalo congressman who favors abortion rights, left a mass in 2007 after being publicly admonished by a deacon from the pulpit. The diocese later apologized. Kennedy, who was publicly anti-abortion rights when first elected to the state Senate in 2010, was taken to task in statements by Malone after saying his position on abortion had changed in 2014.
Buffalo-area Republicans have been less vocal weighing in on the church’s sex abuse scandal and what should be done about it. State Sen. Patrick Gallivan, a Catholic Republican who grew up in South Buffalo until he was 10, said he believes that – regardless of a politician’s faith – lawmakers should do their best to keep their personal gripes with institutions of faith out of the public eye. Gallivan, who represents a district that stretches from the suburbs of Buffalo to the suburbs of Rochester, has not called on Malone to step down and declined to offer his opinion on the matter. “I don’t think it’s appropriate for elected officials to be calling for the head of any religious organization to resign,” Gallivan said. “It’s not our role. You’re presumed to have a separation of church and state on certain matters.” Gallivan has tried to cut a middle path on the Child Victims Act, backing some, but not all of its provisions.
“Until now, until the abuse crisis, there was a kind of truce or peace in the fact that we do not feel compelled to impose laws that follow the Catholic Church’s teachings,” Faggioli said. “At the same time, we will not do anything to address (scandals) against the Catholic Church.”
The church is not the only powerful organization or industry that could potentially be opened up to far greater liability by passage of the Child Victims Act. The Boy Scouts of America, insurers and Orthodox Jewish organizations have lobbied at the state Capitol to keep the bill from coming to the floor.
Since the election, the church has been taking less of a hard line opposition to the bill, saying they are open to discussing a one-year look-back clause, which could potentially open up the decades-old cases. The retroactive nature of that clause had been the focus of previous lobbying efforts.
At a housing event in November, Kennedy, a precise and careful speaker, was reluctant to directly criticize the actions of church leadership and went to great lengths to make clear that sex abuse is a problem that exists far beyond the bounds of the Catholic Church. But he made no bones about his intention to vote for the Child Victims Act. “My expectation, and I believe the expectation of the (Democratic) conference, is that the Child Victims Act will be fast-tracked … so that we can finally give relief to the pain and, quite frankly, the suffering … that survivors have had to go through for, sometimes, decades,” Kennedy said.
Even some local Republicans are separating themselves from the Catholic Church, trying to forge a middle path. Gallivan introduced his own bill days after the election that would not include a look-back period, but would expand the statute of limitations for sex abuse claims and would make members of the Catholic Church and other institutions mandatory reporters, meaning those who know of potential sexual abuse but fail to report it to law enforcement can be held responsible. His bill would also include new protections for whistleblowers.
He made it clear that while lawmakers should not inject their own religious beliefs into politics and policy, neither should they shy away from writing laws that might hurt their standing with their own religious institutions. “I offered it up as a legitimate solution to a problem, and I think it’s really rational,” he said of his bill.
The Catholic Church, once wielding great power in the political world, will need to rethink its relationship with lawmakers. “They don’t enjoy anymore that type of protection that was typical of a very old, old world,” Faggioli said.