Vatican City, Dec 1, 2020 / 05:45 am (CNA).- Pope Francis Tuesday appointed Bishop Michael Fisher, an auxiliary of Washington, to be the next bishop of the scandal-ridden Diocese of Buffalo, New York.
Fisher, 62, will take over leadership of Buffalo as the diocese faces a new lawsuit from the State of New York for failing to protect children from clergy sex abuse.
The diocese also filed for bankruptcy in February of this year, after it was named in hundreds of clerical abuse lawsuits filed in New York courts.
Fisher will be the 15th bishop of the western New York diocese, following Bishop Richard Malone, who resigned amid controversy in December 2019.
In September 2019, Bishop Malone’s former secretary leaked audio of conversations where Malone appeared to acknowledge the legitimacy of sexual harassment accusations made against a diocesan priest months before the priest was removed from active ministry.
A month later, the Vatican ordered an apostolic visitation of Malone’s diocese, which has been embroiled in scandal since November 2018, when Malone’s former assistant leaked records reportedly showing that the diocese worked with lawyers to conceal credible abuse allegations from the public.
While the diocese had reported the names of some priests credibly accused of abuse, it had not reported others, the records appeared to show. Bishop Malone denied claims that he had covered up abuse.
Six months later, Malone apologized for his handling of the case of Fr. Art Smith, a diocesan priest who faced repeated accusations of abuse and misconduct with minors.
Last week, New York’s Attorney General Letitia James filed a lawsuit in the state’s supreme court against the Diocese of Buffalo. Malone, retired auxiliary Bishop Edward Grosz, and Buffalo’s apostolic administrator, Bishop Edward Scharfenberger of Albany, were also named in the lawsuit.
The state alleges that the diocese, Malone, and Grosz failed to properly investigate claims of clergy sex abuse. The state also claims that diocesan leadership did not “refer unassignable priests to the Vatican,” monitor priests with credible accusations, or take necessary action against diocesan priests credibly accused of child sex abuse. It argued that, under state laws governing non-profits, the diocese did not act in “good faith” by failing to follow its own procedures on clergy sex abuse.
Fisher will be installed as bishop of the Diocese of Buffalo on Jan. 15, 2021, at the Cathedral of St. Joseph.
In a press release from the Diocese of Buffalo Dec. 1, Fisher said “though the challenges that currently confront the Diocese of Buffalo are many and significant, they are not equal to the resolve of so many committed lay women and men, devoted priests, deacons and religious across Western New York, who are no less determined to reveal God’s transformative love that has the power to bind every wound, renew and make us whole.”
Bishop Fisher is the oldest of five children and a native of Baltimore, Maryland. After earning degrees in business administration and accounting at the University of Maryland, he worked as a comptroller for a psychiatric practice.
He discerned a vocation to the priesthood and was ordained a priest of the Archdiocese of Washington in 1990.
In 2006, Fisher was appointed vicar for clergy and secretary for ministerial leadership, with responsibility for vocations, formation and care of the clergy for the archdiocese.
Pope Francis named him auxiliary bishop of Washington in June 2018.
Over nearly 30 years of priesthood, Fisher served in several parishes and in leadership of different archdiocesan ministries, including on education, social justice, parish life, and youth.
He has also served on the archdiocese’s administrative board, clergy personnel board, priest council, and priest retirement board, and, according to the press release, his ministry “has involved the continuing education of priests, particularly in aiding new pastors in their roles and the planning and implementation of ongoing clergy training via convocations and retreats.”
Cardinal Wilton Gregory of Washington described Fisher as “an exceptionally compassionate and skilled servant of the Church.”
“His distinguished history as pastor, Vicar for Priests, and member of our Pastoral Administration have prepared him well for his new responsibilities in that diocese. While we will miss his deft pastoral talents, they will be warmly welcomed by the faithful, religious, and clergy of the Diocese of Buffalo,” Gregory said.