Albany, NY (WRGB) — More than 400 Child Victims Act cases have been lodged against the Albany Roman Catholic Diocese claiming clergy were allowed to prey on children with impunity for decades while church officials turned a blind eye.
Albany Bishop Edward Scharfenberger has said he wants to "walk with the survivors," but the path ahead is littered with challenges. He must heal the pain of sex abuse while juggling the need for accountability and do it with what he says are limited resources and the added pressure of an onslaught of legal action just around the corner.
This week I sat down for an exclusive interview with the head of the diocese. Eight years ago, Scharfenberger took over the role of spiritual leader to more than 300,000 local Catholics from Howard Hubbard, a man who has gone on the record admitting that he covered up clergy sex abuse in order to avoid scandal and maintain respect for the priesthood. I asked Bishop Scharfenberger if he could understand that mindset. He told me he could not.
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Let me be blunt. You've got a rotten apple in the barrel who can cause the other apples to become rotten. I don't see how you preserve the purity and goodness of the rest of the apples by hiding the rotten apple."
I asked, "But, because he has admitted that he did allow that to happen, does that make him a rotten apple?" Scharfenberger answered, "That's not my judgment to make. Only God can judge what's in his soul."
In some ways, Scharfenberger is now the one being judged. Some would say he's fighting for the very soul of his church. "To answer your question, Liz, do I think that not revealing, not reporting to civil authorities, not revealing the bad behavior." I interjected, "Or, allowing it to persist?" He replied, "Certainly, allowing it to persist, again, what do you do to prevent that behavior? You certainly don't reassign them. But unfortunately, that was the practice and, it's not the first time I heard that, and it is not the first time I heard it from a bishop. "
Bishop Scharfenberger agreed that the Catholic Church might have been held to a higher standard, saying , "Yes, yes, absolutely. We're accountable to God. We're accountable to the truth. But people sometimes do things in a pragmatic way rather than the principled way."
Scharfenberger, who is himself a lawyer, tells me it would not be wise to discuss his conversations with Hubbard about his actions because of pending litigation.
On Sunday Bishop Scharfenberger met with the first person to settle his CVA lawsuit with the diocese on the very spot at Corpus Christi Church in Round Lake where Stephen Mittler says he met Father Mark Haight. He claims Haight sexually abused him for years. Mittler has said repeatedly the church's coverup of Haight's long string of abuses set him up to become a victim.
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The Bishop says the Mittler settlement was pared down from an original ask of two million dollars to 750 thousand-- he called it a mutual agreement calculated on a quote distasteful system based on the degree of abuse.
But Mittler says it was the threat of bankruptcy--which would have tied his case up without resolution for years--that motivated him to settle. Anyone who has ever been to the Vatican may feel a disconnect at equating the Catholic Church--with all its riches and priceless art--with bankruptcy, but Scharfenberger countered, "It's not as easy to get money into a pot as it might at first seem. We are not a multinational corporation. We have no pipeline to the Vatican."
Scharfenberger said not only is there no path to the Vatican vault, but the pockets of the Albany Diocese are not deep.
"God forbid we went into bankruptcy, that would become very clear. and it might surprise a lot of people. The church, the diocese in Albany, is not rich."
I asked the Bishop who, then, would pay? "The parish would not have to pay for something the diocese is being sued for. There's no obligation." I asked him if they would be asked to? He told me it was possible and that he might potentially be the one doing the asking if the diocese was trying to create a fund.
Mittler has also accused the diocese of stonewalling as he went through the legal process--refusing to produce documents that would have added clarity to his case--like sealed personnel records and psychological treatment evaluations. Scharfenberger said there are no secret files. "Our files are confidential in the way that ordinary personnel files would be confidential in a business," adding, "It's not as simple as let's get all the records out there. Does everyone really want to know everything? Every sin that every person committed?" I said possibly they would want to know. He replied, "Anybody for whom it is an important thing to know that, I have no problem with them knowing it. We routinely would share that information." The Bishop later clarified by email there is no right to secrecy in criminal matters and that anything that is criminal needs to be disclosed.
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I asked Bishop Scharfenberger how an organization founded on love and kindness finds itself in this position? HIs answer? "Sin. Human beings are subject to be tempted, corrupted, to be led the wrong way. To look for love in the wrong places, quite frankly."
And, as for the survivability of the church--"Nobody ever said church has to be rich, the church has to have buildings, the church has to have stuff. That's the way of the world. So, even if all that goes, the church will survive."