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Few bishops resign in the face of clergy sex abuse scandals

The odds are probably against Bishop Richard J. Malone resigning any time soon – based on the few examples of American bishops who stepped down after being exposed for covering up clergy sex abuse.

Lt. Gov. Kathy Hochul on Monday became the latest elected official to call for Malone to step down over his handling of sex abuse and harassment complaints against Buffalo Diocese clergy.

But within Catholic tradition, powerful political leaders don’t determine whether a bishop stays or goes. Only the pope has that kind of authority.

While bishops can remove priests from ministry, they can't remove another bishop, said Catholic Church scholar Michele Dillon. And bishops stepping down prematurely was a “fairly rare” occurrence within the church, added Dillon, professor of sociology at the University of New Hampshire.

Despite revelations of cover-ups of clergy sexual abuse in dozens of U.S. dioceses, just five American bishops or archbishops resigned in the past 16 years, according to the website BishopAccountability.org, which maintains a massive database of clergy abuse cases.

“In general, I would say the Vatican has always been very, very reluctant to go that route,” said Terence McKiernan, one of the founders and operators of the website.

One of the five prelates, Bishop Robert W. Finn, didn’t resign until 2015, three years after he was convicted of criminal charges related to child sexual abuse in the Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph. The other prelates who stepped down amid sex abuse scandals in their dioceses or archdioceses were: Cardinal Bernard F. Law of the Archdiocese of Boston; Bishop Daniel F. Walsh of the Diocese of Santa Rosa, Calif.; and Archbishop John C. Nienstedt and Auxiliary Bishop Lee. A. Piche of the Archdiocese of Saint Paul and Minneapolis.

Malone is facing growing pressure to relinquish his leadership of the Buffalo Diocese and its 600,000 Catholics in 160 parishes. A sexual abuse scandal that has been unfolding in media coverage for six months escalated last week with a WKBW-TV report that included internal church documents showing Malone kept two priests in ministry despite complaints of misconduct.

One priest, the Rev. Robert Yetter, was accused in the report of sexually harassing two adult men. The diocese also announced on Monday that it is now investigating a new complaint of abuse against Yetter possibly involving a child. Yetter resigned as pastor of St. Mary's Church in Swormville following the latest accusation.

Buffalo Diocese investigating new complaint against Swormville priest

The other priest, the Rev. Arthur Smith, was returned to ministry by Malone after being removed by a previous bishop for inappropriate behavior around a child. The documents obtained by WKBW-TV regarding the allegations against Smith did not state that Smith had been accused of molesting a child. The files showed that a former Catholic school principal alleged that Smith was trying to groom a child for abuse.

Malone on Sunday admitted he made mistakes in handling the allegations, but resisted calls for his resignation.

“The shepherd does not desert the flock in a difficult time,” he said.

Diocesan spokesman George Richert did not respond Monday to requests for comment.

In Boston, Cardinal Law for months resisted calls to relinquish his leadership of the archdiocese at the epicenter of the clergy sex abuse scandal in 2002. He resigned following the release of a letter signed by 58 Boston area priests urging him to step down.

In Santa Rosa, Walsh faced a misdemeanor charge for not immediately reporting the alleged sexual misconduct of a priest in 2006. The charge was dropped, as long as Walsh agreed to attend a counseling program. Pope Benedict XVI appointed another bishop to share with Walsh the duties of running the Santa Rosa Diocese, until ultimately accepting Walsh’s request to retire in 2011 at age 73, two years prior to the required date of submitting a resignation request.

In Minnesota, Nienstedt and Piche stepped down in 2015, within weeks of misdemeanor criminal charges of failing to protect children being lodged against the Archdiocese of Saint Paul and Minneapolis. Nienstedt also was accused of making sexual advances on two priests.

The legal issues with Walsh and with the Archdiocese of Saint Paul and Minneapolis are likely what compelled Pope Benedict XVI and Pope Francis to accept their resignations, said McKiernan of BishopAccountability.org.

“That’s the kind of pressure they really understand," he said.

In Western New York, very few priests have been charged with child sex abuse crimes and no high-ranking diocese officials have been charged with covering up abuse crimes.

Hochul joined fellow Catholic Democrats Rep. Brian Higgins and Erie County Legislator Patrick Burke, as well as Deacon Paul Snyder III and the Catholic radio station WLOF and others in saying Malone needed to go.

“We need new leadership to come in here, clean house, and say there is zero tolerance for anyone who would ever consider violating the trust families and children have in their priests and administrators in the Catholic schools. It has to end,” Hochul said. “People need to be brought to justice and held accountable for their actions.”

Malone just recently celebrated the sixth anniversary of his installation as Buffalo bishop. He is less than three years shy of his 75th birthday, the date all bishops are mandated to submit a letter of resignation to the pope.

McKiernan said the reluctance of bishops to resign their posts and of the pope to remove them for mishandling abuse allegations is another example of the church seeking to avoid scandal to the institution.

But he said the reluctance was misguided and “is actually the scandalous thing.”

Even 16 years after the Archdiocese of Boston scandals, the church can’t seem to get past its culture of secrecy and collusion, said Catholic Church scholar Dillon.

“This is why so many Catholics today are shaking their heads,” she said.

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