Parishioners of St. Mary's Church in Swormville responded to Bishop Richard J. Malone’s statement of apology Saturday with a mix of anger, disappointment and frustration over his handling of a sexual abuse scandal that has been unfolding in media reports for six months and now includes Malone’s cover-up of a priest who sexually harassed grown men.
“Words only,” said church member Jay Christopher of Clarence. “What that letter said was meaningless to me. I don’t need an apology. I need actions. Do something about it.”
Malone did not show up at the parish. He sent Auxiliary Bishop Edward M. Grosz to read a 10-paragraph statement prior to a 4 p.m. Mass at St. Mary's. It came the day after a businessman and deacon of the church, a Catholic radio station and three public officials, including U.S. Rep. Brian Higgins, D-Buffalo, called for Malone to resign.
“Let me be clear that the handling of claims from some of our parishioners – which you may have read about in news reports – has fallen short of the standard to which we hold ourselves and each other. We can and will do better,” Grosz said in reading the bishop’s letter.
The statement made no mention of the calls for Malone to step down.
With 2,650 members, St. Mary's is one of the largest and wealthiest parishes in the Buffalo Diocese. The sanctuary was more than three-quarters full on Saturday.
Several parishioners said they agreed with Paul L. Snyder III, a deacon, who on Friday kicked off the calls for Malone to step down in light of media reports over the past six months detailing child sexual abuse allegations and culminating with a WKBW-TV report this week that Malone kept two priests in ministry despite allegations of inappropriate conduct.
“It’s a long time it’s been going on and he didn’t do anything,” said Richard Archambeault of Clarence. “Something should have been done a lot sooner.”
“I want to be able to trust the Catholic Church again and right now that trust is pretty wavy,” added Archambeault’s wife, Joyce.
Another parishioner, who declined to provide her name to a reporter, said she was tired of listening to bishops say they same thing over and over without changing how they operate. She wanted Malone to resign, she said.
“Whatever they say, you can’t trust. That’s been proven now with these articles,” said the woman, who identified herself as an East Amherst resident and member of the parish for 25 years. “I’m sick about this.”
Some parishioners said they appreciated Malone's statement and expressed faith in his leadership.
"Everybody's human, OK," said Leonard Sliwinski of Clarence. " He didn't make a mistake. Somebody else did."
One of the accused priests, the Rev. Robert Yetter, served as pastor of St. Mary's Church for many years. Yetter is alleged to have made unwanted sexual advances on two adult men, including one who said the priest tried to kiss him and grab his groin area.
Malone admitted that he “may have at times lost sight of the harm that results from inappropriate sexual contact between clergy and adults” and he promised to examine how the diocese handles claims of clergy misconduct with adults.
But Malone’s statement did not directly address his handling of the case of the Rev. Arthur Smith, who also had remained in ministry until recently, despite warnings from a school principal that Smith had acted inappropriately with a child.
“While we continue to work through the decades old abuses, we cannot lose sight of the actions of those within our Diocese today. We can and will do better in addressing the more current decisions pertaining to priests who violate sacred trusts,” the statement reads. “To the victims of priest abuse of all ages, children and adults, I am profoundly sorry for the pain this has caused you. While nothing I can say to you could heal the hurt of this tragic breach of trust, I do as bishop of this diocese apologize to you. I want you to know that as I try to deal with what can often be an overwhelming and heart-wrenching mission, I am learning more every day that following my moral compass may serve us better than simply following past protocol.”
Some clergy contacted by The News said that Malone made a serious misstep by not keeping Smith out of active ministry after Bishop Edward U. Kmiec removed Smith as pastor of St. Mary of the Lake Church in Hamburg in 2012. Malone even wrote a glowing letter of recommendation for Smith to serve as a chaplain on a cruise ship, according to the WKBW report.
“Up until this point, it has been the bishop saying, ‘I am correcting the sins of the past.’ This is different because it’s his judgment called into question,” said one local pastor. “Very few people will jump to his defense, especially over something like this, which appears to be indefensible.”
Clergy across the diocese said parishioners were struggling to come to grips with the scandal.
The Rev. Paul D. Seil, pastor of St. Bernadette Church in Orchard Park, said the diocese was facing the biggest crisis of his nearly 30 years as a priest.
In his homily Saturday, he tried to emphasize that if the church has a plan to combat the crisis, it “has got to be transparency and openness.”
He also said he would urge people to avoid jumping to conclusions about the roots of the crisis.
“Some people want immediate sweeping answers. The abuse has got to stop, the cover-up has to stop,” he said. “But there’s not an easy, sweeping answer” to why the abuse crisis happened.
Deacon Thaddeus V. Pijacki of St. Benedict Church in Eggertsville recently wrote to Pope Francis asking for the pontiff to allow priests to be married and for women to become deacons within the church.
“Without wanting to posit that there is a direct relationship between those requests and the sexual scandals, the studies indicate that there exists a sexual subculture within the Church that has led to unhealthy and harmful expressions of human sexuality that have brought scandal and shame to this Blessed institution of the Church,” Pijacki said in his letter. “As an ordained member of the Church, I feel the intense pain of those who have been violated as well as of those who struggle to remain faithful in light of the constant revelations of such abuses globally.”
Some parishes organized special prayer sessions to help survivors of abuse and other Catholics try to heal.
St. Gregory the Great Church in Amherst scheduled an evening of “Adoration and Prayer” from 7 to 9 p.m. on Sunday. St. Leo the Great Church in Amherst will host prayers for reparation and healing, from 3 to 8 p.m. on Sept. 7, including exposition of the Blessed Sacrament, rosary recitation, the sacrament of confession, a Mass and a candlelight procession.
“I think a lot of people are pretty discouraged at this point, and hurting,” said Monsignor Robert E. Zapfel, the pastor at St. Leo. “We want to demonstrate and allow people to demonstrate how strong our faith is.”
Story topics: Clergy sex cases