Rejecting public calls to resign, Bishop Richard J. Malone on Sunday used a biblical metaphor.
“The shepherd does not desert the flock in a difficult time,” he said.
The sad truth is that Bishop Malone has lost his way, as well as his credibility, in his handling of abuse allegations against priests in the Diocese of Buffalo. It is time for him to step down. The diocese needs a leader who is not confused about the nature of the crisis enveloping the church.
To be clear, many of the sexual abuse scandals that have emerged in the past six months involved incidents that happened years or decades ago, well before Malone took over here. He has spoken of his desire to heal the past victims, and in March the diocese established the Independent Reconciliation and Compensation Program, to give recompense to victims of priest sex abuse.
In an interview with The Buffalo News in June, Malone said “there’s nothing being hidden” from the public about abuse allegations.
That doesn’t seem to be the case.
Last week WKBW-TV reported on internal documents that showed Malone kept two priests in ministry despite complaints against them of misconduct.
The Rev. Robert Yetter resigned as pastor of St. Mary’s Church in Swormville this week after the diocese announced it was investigating a complaint against him possibly involving a child. Yetter was accused in the WKBW report of sexually harassing two adult men. Documents show that Malone and the diocese covered up the allegations with prodding from Yetter, who reminded the diocese in a letter of the significant fundraising prowess of his parish.
Another priest, the Rev. Arthur Smith, was returned to ministry by Malone after being removed by a previous bishop for inappropriate behavior around a child. A former Catholic school principal alleged that Smith was trying to groom a child for abuse. Yet a church document shows that Malone provided a letter of recommendation for Smith to become a cruise ship chaplain, writing he was “unaware of anything in his background which would render him unsuitable to work with minor children.”
What possible excuse is there for Malone to brush aside allegations of such behavior? Malone was an auxiliary bishop in the Archdiocese of Boston when one of the nation’s first major clergy abuse scandals erupted, in the early 2000s. Anyone reading the headlines in Boston at that time, let alone serving in the church hierarchy, would realize the devastating impact of the crimes against children and the years of covering up.
Malone cannot possibly claim ignorance or naivete about these issues.
Last week, businessman Paul Snyder III and Rep. Brian Higgins, D-Buffalo, called for the bishop’s resignation. Synder is a longtime church volunteer as serves as a deacon in his parish. Since then those voices have swelled to a chorus. Most recently, Lt. Gov. Kathy Hochul joined the call, following Erie County Legislator Patrick B. Burke, Buffalo Councilman Christopher P. Scanlon and the Catholic radio station WLOF.
For public figures to take a stand like that takes courage. Elected officials risk losing votes from many of the Catholics who populate Western New York’s 160 parishes. Synder risks the resentment of other Catholics.
Malone made a public statement on Sunday, reacting to calls for him to resign. He admitted to mistakes in handling the allegations, and said he would set up a new task force and office to oversee ethics, but said he would not step aside.
The bishop said the church’s charter for the protection of children and young people “has been our guiding mandate. … Reflecting on my handing of recent allegations of sexual misconduct with adults, I fear that in seeking to uphold the charter to the letter – and remember the charter is for young people – I may have lost sight of the charter’s spirit, which applies to people of all ages.”
Those are the words of a politician, trying to cling to office by admitting he was perhaps overzealous in upholding the letter of the law.
The spirit of the charter, and the spiritual life of the diocese and its 600,000 Catholics, are what matter most. Buffalo’s faithful deserve new leadership.