WASHINGTON (CNS) — In a Zoom teleconference where he was introduced as the new bishop of Buffalo Dec. 1, Bishop Michael W. Fisher told members of the media that he is coming to his new diocese as a pastor.
He said he would seek to bring the good news of Christ’s Gospel to a diocese hit hard by the abuse crisis.
“I hope to walk with them in seeking healing,” he said of survivors of clergy sexual abuse.
Bishop Fisher, who was ordained as a priest of the Archdiocese of Washington in 1990 and ordained as an auxiliary bishop in that archdiocese in 2018, was named by Pope Francis as the new bishop of Buffalo earlier that morning.
Several reporters asked him about a recent lawsuit brought by New York’s attorney general, accusing previous church leaders in Buffalo of covering up cases of clergy sexual abuse for decades.
The Diocese of Buffalo filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in February 2020 as it faced 260 lawsuits under New York’s Child Victims Act, after it earlier had reported a $5 million loss for fiscal year 2019, which it attributed to the consequences of the abuse scandal.
“I pledge to be truthful and transparent,” Bishop Fisher said, adding he would fully cooperate with civil authorities whenever there are cases of criminal wrongdoing, and the diocese would maintain a “zero tolerance” policy toward any abuse of children or sexual harassment of adults.
Stressing the importance of accountability and transparency, Bishop Fisher said, “Trust needs to be seen in our actions and how we carry out our ministry.”
The bishop noted that over the years, he has met with abuse victims and conducted retreats for them, and he said he hoped those experiences will help him look at the issue through their eyes.
“I come as a pastor with a pastor’s heart,” he said, noting that as a pastor and a diocesan official, he had learned the importance of collaborating with others when facing challenging decisions.
When asked his advice for the Catholic community in Buffalo as the coronavirus pandemic continues to surge across the country, Bishop Fisher — who has served as the Archdiocese of Washington’s secretary for ministerial leadership since 2006 — said: “I’ve personally buried four of my brother priests who died of COVID-19 in the diocese.”
The bishop added that he’s had family members who suffered from the virus. “I know the devastation it’s placed on families and our nation,” he said.
Bishop Fisher pointed out how the Diocese of Buffalo has enacted coronavirus safety precautions for its ministries, and he encouraged people to do all they can to stay safe and keep others safe.
“We’re in this together. We have to look out for the safety and well-being of our brothers and sisters,” he said.
Also asked about the nationwide demonstrations for racial justice in the wake of unarmed people of color being killed during altercations with police, and what the church should do to combat racism, Bishop Fisher responded: “Yes, there is systematic racism in our country and in our church.”
The bishop noted that he has two brothers and a nephew who work in law enforcement. “They’re appalled when there’s this violence toward our African American brothers,” he said.
It’s important for people to talk with each other about racism, Bishop Fisher said. “We need to be better at listening. As a pastor, I need to listen.”
Racism, he said, “is a sin against the dignity of every human being. We need to work on solutions on how we treat one another.”
Throughout the press briefing, Bishop Fisher emphasized that he is coming to Buffalo as a pastor, to bring Christ to the people he will serve there.
“I am a parish priest in my heart and in my very core. Since my ordination, all I wanted to do was to be a pastor,” he said.
Bishop Fisher served as a priest at three Maryland parishes, where he said he enjoyed celebrating Masses and administering sacraments such as baptism and witnessing the sacrament of matrimony. As a diocesan administrator, he has worked closely with priests, deacons and religious, and got to know their joys and struggles.
He expressed gratitude to his late parents, “who gave me the gift of life and faith.”
Noting that COVID-19 travel restrictions had prevented him from traveling to Buffalo “by plane, train or automobile” for his introductory press briefing, he said he was looking forward to getting to know his new family of faith in that area that is famous for its chicken wings and for the Buffalo Bills football team.
“I hope you will call me ‘Bishop Mike,'” he said, adding that as a priest, “the term ‘Father Mike’ was always endearing to me.”
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Zimmermann is editor of the Catholic Standard, newspaper of the Archdiocese of Washington.