LISTEN: A conversation with diocesan compliance leaders
It was one year ago, Oct. 25, 2022, that the Diocese of Buffalo and New York State Attorney General announced a settlement related to the former’s handling of past sexual abuse claims. At that time, as part of the settlement, the diocese introduced Melissa Potzler as a new point person for compliance enforcement.
Since then, her role has evolved, and the diocese has added Father Peter Santandreu as its new vice chancellor. He brings his valuable education in canon law into the Catholic Center to enhance compliance efforts.
WNY Catholic Audio recently sat with both to discuss their updated roles, and their continuing efforts to ensure the diocese addresses complaints of any nature properly.
Below is a transcript of the interview.
WNYCA: On Oct. 25, 2022, the Diocese of Buffalo announced it had reached a settlement with the Office of the New York Attorney General in relation to the latter’s lawsuit filed against the diocese in November 2000 regarding how the diocese handled abuse claims against it. During the official announcement of that settlement, the diocese introduced Melissa Potzler as its new Child Protection Policy coordinator. Over the next few months, she has put on several more hats in her role, including that of chancellor.
The diocese also recently added Father Peter Santandreu as a vice chancellor. He was ordained a priest five years ago, served as a chaplain of patients during the Covid-19 pandemic, and recently completed his studies in canon law.
Melissa, let’s touch on your expanded roles and how they affect your day-to-day duties in ensuring that the Diocese of Buffalo is complying with its agreement with the attorney general, and that is to protect individuals from harm.
MP: We are currently under the audit that was required by the attorney general’s office. And as Child Protection Policy coordinator, I take the lead role in making sure that we pass that audit, that all of our policies are followed, that we are doing everything in our purview to make sure that children are safe. And as chancellor, I am now the additional responsibility of making sure that all of our archives and our files are well maintained and in order, which helps me in doing the Child Protection Policy coordinator job, to make sure that everything is in order and in place.
WNYCA: Father Peter, your expertise is in canon law, which being that we are a religious institution, we deal with both civil law and with religious law. Talk about efforts that really require compliance not just in civil law, but in canon law as well.
PS: We are the society of the church. And as a society, we have things necessary for our upkeep, our maintenance, and our ongoing administration. So, all those things are contained in the 1983 Code of Canon Law, more specifically the procedures for completing a preliminary investigation, for doing an extraditional process, for a judicial proceeding when it comes time to deciding on these penal matters. I am very happy to bring this canonical education I’ve just received to the diocese to assist in these things that may have been a little fuzzier in times previous. But having recently studied all these with the ever-changing law of the church, I’m more than happy and very grateful to be in a position to assist the diocese with the internal canonical ordering of the proceedings to get to the truth when it comes to matters of penal discipline.
MP: And I also just want to say, with the addition of Father Santandreu, me being a civil lawyer and him being a canon lawyer, it is so much easier to work through the cases that we have now, because I understand the attorney general portion of it, and then he brings the canon law portion into it. So, it makes it so much easier to handle these cases as they come in.
WNYCA: Now, complaints do still come in, and the fact that the diocese does report this to the public shows that, yes, the diocese is not trying to hide anything from anybody. It’s still a painful process to have to go through. Without getting into any specific cases, let’s just say ‘case X’ comes in. Melissa, talk about the process from the moment you get the complaint. What happens next?
MP: The first step is that the victim assistance coordinator talks to the complainant, gets the full details, prepares a written report, and then sends it to all of the people at the diocese – the bishop, myself, the vicar general, the vicar for clergy. And then we go to work on doing an initial investigation. The Independent Review Board hires an independent investigator who goes out and examines all of the aspects of the case, presents it to the independent review board, and they decide whether or not it’s substantiated or unsubstantiated.
WNYCA: Father Peter, this is, I guess, where you come in. If the case is found to be substantiated, there’s the question of what to do with the person in question and how to deal out justice. Talk about that process.
PS: It really depends on the nature of the alleged crime and the person who alleges that it happened. If it was somebody who is alleging child abuse or someone who was under the age of 18 who was sexually abused by a cleric or even a layperson, there’s a certain procedure, especially for clergy, that would need to be dealt with in conjunction with the Dicastery of the Doctrine of the Faith in Rome. If it’s something else like sexual abuse of an adult or any other kind of violation of canon law, like someone preaches a bad homily – which is not illegal, but there are ways to address these things that do not include conversations with Rome or don’t include the more formal processes that I’ve talked about before.
WNYCA: You just raised an important point because people are focused on abuse cases, but canon law and cases that might come before you might also involve, perhaps, a priest that says something that is considered out of line. There are priests throughout the United States that have gotten in trouble for kind of stepping out of bounds like that. Talk a little bit more about if something like that comes forward, if a parishioner says, ‘You know, I really didn’t appreciate what the pastor said this past weekend,’ what happens next?
PS: I guess it depends what the content of that saying was. I think the first step would always be to determine if it’s actually true. If we can talk to the pastor in question and say, well, did you say this? And if he did, then say, well, why did you say this? And try to get to the bottom of what it would be. I guess things that would be on a lesser level would be, oh, I didn’t agree with his take on the Gospel of John today. But something of a higher level, maybe if he’s saying something that could be interpreted as racist or as derogatory towards a certain group of people, that would be a higher level. And then a higher level than that might be that he would be committing acts of heresy, you know, saying that the Eucharist is not the real presence of Jesus Christ or that we should not follow what the pope or the bishop does in an act of schism. These would be more serious things that we need to be investigating.
WNYCA: What about potentially partisan political statements? You might get a sermon where you’re kind of persuaded to think a certain way, but priests stop short of saying, ‘Vote for this specific person.’ But do you get cases where people question that whether maybe a priest or a deacon has maybe crossed the line?
PS: Oh, I’m sure. Yeah. My new role here in the diocese, I’ve not been aware of anything like that. Only been here for a few months. But I myself have received an anonymous letter when I was at St. Amelia’s Parish saying, I can’t believe that you supported candidate X in your homily. And I went back to my homily and I said, I really didn’t do that. I might have spoken on some important issues that are surrounding the electoral process, but I never said anyone’s name or did that. But it’s the way things are interpreted. So, I think that you need to be an artist in the pulpit when it comes to this and be very careful about coming up that line because there are civil implications for that as well.
WNYCA: Melissa, getting back to abuse cases, the diocese, of course, is undergoing bankruptcy proceedings right now. And as part of the proceedings, there’s a gag order in effect. The diocese, the lawyers, all parties involved are not allowed to talk publicly about what’s going on in the courtroom. You still get media reports and sometimes people conclude that, well, the diocese is just stalling. What message do you have to Catholic faithful about the proceedings?
MP: We’ve been under mediation for quite some time now. Every few months we get together, the Creditors Committee, which involves the victims and their attorneys, the insurance carriers and the diocese and the Catholic family. And when you have three parties trying to reach an agreement at the same time, it gets a little difficult. We’re under mediation privilege, which means we’re not allowed to speak about anything that happens in those negotiations. We want, the diocese desperately wants to solve this and to settle these cases with fair compensation for the victims while still being able to maintain our mission of serving as the Catholic Church. So, we have to make sure that we have enough assets to continue our mission while justly compensating the victims. Unfortunately, because we can’t speak about any of it, stories get out there and people are left to speculate.
WNYCA: As a Catholic person, take yourself out of your office and just as a Catholic person. When you hear this stuff, both of you, how do you fall back on your faith to patiently have to endure what is sometimes just egregious misinformation?
MP: Well, I think being a civil attorney, I understand the process and I know why it’s going the way it is. So, it makes it easier for me to sit back and say God’s in control. It’ll eventually be worked out and there’s nothing we can do to fix the civil process.
PS: And for me as well, I know that I’m currently involved in many more conversations that include confidentiality than I’ve ever have been in the past. It’s hard to be in conversations with priests, with the public, with my parents, with anybody about these things that are very much in the public eye and they want to know, ‘Say, what’s going on with case X? What’s going on with priest Y?’ And I can say, well, I can’t talk about that. But I, like you said about the process too, that I know what we’re doing is the best we can and really is a seeking of justice. I want to prove that to people, I want to be more transparent and to give people an inside look at this, but that’s not what’s on the table. It’s not what’s available for us to do. So, I just have to trust that even when there are misunderstandings and maybe even accusations against our process, against our integrity, I believe we are doing right. What I want to say to people is, hey, just trust us. But I also understand that that falls on deaf ears. That’s something that we’ve been saying, and we can’t really continue to say without showing some kind of results. So, at the end of the day, my faith allows me to know that it was our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ who was misunderstood and who was accused of things he wasn’t doing. I’m not saying that I am the Lord, but just saying that this is a Christian tradition to deal with misunderstandings and to deal with external pressures that don’t have all the information, but to also be challenged to act with integrity with the information we do have and to do the best we can.
WNYCA: And as the diocese does want to get this process resolved, it still takes patience. I think people today are just used to getting instant results. I mean, mysteries can be solved in a 60-minute TV show. But it does require some patience as much as even the diocese wants to get this over with.
MP: Yeah, absolutely. We understand that the longer this takes, the more our assets are being depleted and the less can go to the victims for just compensation. The less we have to perform our mission of charity and bringing people to Christ. So, we want this resolved.
WNYCA: And the idea of the bankruptcy proceeding is to make sure that more victims, all victims as much as possible, can get some sort of compensation for the pain they endured instead of one person maybe suing for the whole pie, that everyone in the end gets a piece.MP: Absolutely. That’s exactly what this is designed for.