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'I am a man of integrity': Bishop Malone defends handling of church abuse scandal

Bishop Richard J. Malone was surprised and saddened every time he saw an article or TV story about his handling of the priest sex abuse scandal in his diocese, as well as when prominent leaders went to the media to call for his resignation.

“The truth is every day, I wonder what I’ll see in the paper, or letter to the editor, or editorial or what they put out on the television or radio," Malone said in an interview with The Buffalo News. "It is difficult. It is very difficult to have one’s integrity questioned.

“That is hard for me to swallow because, I don’t mean to sound boastful, but from my deepest moments of prayer and self-reflection, I am a man of integrity,” he said, adding: “I’m a man who can make a mistake and that is what I did in two cases where we had allegations of misconduct by a priest with adults.”

Malone, without naming them, was referring in one case to the Rev. Robert Yetter, who allegedly made unwanted sexual advances on two young adult men. The other was the Rev. Arthur Smith, whom Malone assigned as a cruise ship chaplain after Smith was accused of inappropriate behavior with two men and a boy.

Malone suspended Smith last spring because of a complaint about alleged sex abuse of a child decades ago. The Buffalo Diocese in March was made aware of that complaint. Yetter was suspended in late August after a local television station first reported on the priest sex abuse and misconduct documents leaked by Siobhan O’Connor, Malone's former administrative assistant.

As for Rep. Brian Higgins, D-Buffalo, Lt. Gov. Kathy Hochul and other elected officials calling for his resignation, Malone said they have a right to their opinion, but he wishes they would have reached out directly to him.

“I was kind of surprised by it. I think it might have been more appropriate if they had simply called the office and said, ‘Bishop, we’re very concerned about this. Could we come in and talk with you?' I would have appreciated that and I would have met with them. To have to read it in the paper, I just didn’t think it was the best approach.”

(Sharon Cantillon/News file photo)

Deacon Paul L. Snyder III, who appeared on the "60 Minutes" television news show with O'Connor on Oct. 28, is one of two deacons who also has publicly called on Malone to resign.

“I don’t really know what to say about that," Malone said in the interview, which took place weeks before the "60 Minutes" segment. "I found it hurtful and perhaps not the most appropriate way.”

Calls for transparency

Malone said he wants to do a better job of making the Buffalo Catholic Diocese more transparent in its handling of the clergy sex abuse scandal. And he said that transparency begins with him.

The “rage” that has been vented at him by victims of sex abuse by priests and the victims' supporters has been painful, but Malone also says it does not come close to how that abuse has devastated the lives of victims.

Malone says he wants to get away from responses of "no comment" when questions are raised about how he and the diocese have addressed incidents in the past that have caused many of the nearly 600,000 Catholics in the diocese to doubt his and the church’s leadership.

He has scheduled a news conference for Monday afternoon to allow the media to hear from him and other diocesan leaders and ask questions. Malone has spent the weekend preparing for the news conference, according to diocese spokeswoman Kathy Spangler.

But she said the bishop still has a question:  “The biggest question we have is: Who are the eight or nine priests mentioned in the '60 Minutes' story by Father [Robert] Zilliox? We don’t know who they are and we want very much for him or anyone else to please tell us.”

The "60 Minutes" segment also included an interview with Zilliox, a canon lawyer, who said Malone had ignored his recommendations on several abuse cases and that "at least eight or nine" priests should have been taken out of the priesthood due to abuse allegations, but were not.

Spangler said Zilliox met with the bishop Oct. 24 after the taping of the priest's "60 Minutes" interview.

A second meeting between Zilliox and Steven Halter, director of the diocese's new office of professional responsibility, which will probe claims of sexual misconducts and financial misdeeds, occurred last Monday, the day after the segment was broadcast. Halter asked Zilliox for the names of the eight or nine priests but did not receive an answer, the spokeswoman said.

"As the issue of the eight or nine priest names gained momentum, Mr. Halter returned on Wednesday, Oct. 31, to speak with Father Zilliox at which time Father Zilliox said hello and thereafter advised he had nothing further to say to Mr. Halter," Spangler said.

Zilliox is one of three Buffalo Catholic clergy members who have said they, too, were sexually abused by priests.

Spangler said the media has ignored Malone’s efforts to protect children and adults.

His efforts for greater transparency, which includes getting that message out, started a couple of weeks ago when he was interviewed on WIVB-TV and this past Friday on WBEN radio by Tom Bauerle and David Bellavia.

Two more Western New York priests put on leave after abuse complaints

No plans to resign

In the interview with The News, Malone spoke of the protective measures he has implemented but also repeatedly admitted his missteps. The bishop refused to take questions about specific priests accused of sexual abuse and his handling of the allegations against them.

When asked if he was capable of handling the myriad challenges brought on by the scandal, which includes multiple investigations by local, state and federal authorities, the 72-year-old Malone said he has no plans to resign and has every intention of serving until the mandatory retirement age of 75.

The bishop said he has met with and offered advice and support to diocesan priests, citing a recent meeting he had with clergy ordained within the last decade. He said he also made it clear they need to be mindful of the sex abuse victims.

He said he told them: “Your part in it is that you are on the front lines and you guys are relating to your parishioners and I know what it feels like. You’re wondering what they are thinking of you. They are all feeling the pain, but as I reminded, and they knew it well too, that any of the anguish we feel – and we have to own that, it is our profession that’s under fire – is nothing compared to what victims go through.”

Of the investigations and particularly the state attorney general’s probe of dioceses throughout the state, Malone said “bring it on,” saying that investigators will find out how many good priests there are in the Buffalo Diocese.

“I’m glad that is happening. Absolutely, bring it on. I like to think, I’d like to believe that when they go through those files, I mean we have files on all priests and not all those files have bad stories in them. In fact, very few comparatively. So I think it is a good thing the AG’s going to do this.”

My View by Siobhan O'Connor: 'I leaked the truth in love'

Of the victims and his pastoral care of them, Malone has been criticized not only here but in Portland, Maine, where he previously served as bishop. The criticism in Portland was so intense that he had a bodyguard for some of his time there.

But Malone insists he has never given victims short shrift, claiming he has been compassionate and quickly remembers what they have shared in meetings with him, especially when he finds himself struggling with the challenges of the sex abuse scandal.

He said "...when they describe some of the absolutely horrific things from people they should have been able to trust and what they did to them, it puts it in perspective."

“You always hope and pray that they will move from being a victim to a victim-survivor," he said. "That’s a transition I’ve discovered, when they start to feel I’m going to survive this. That’s when we have hopefully provided some helpful counseling, an apology and affirmation we are here for them.

"You always hope they will regain their faith and trust in God. Sometimes it’s not their faith in the Lord that’s been impaired, it’s their faith in the church.”

One of the first things Malone cited in the interview and kept returning to was the 2002 “Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People” to protect them from sexual abuse by priests and deacons. He gave a copy of it to The News.

He said that when the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops adopted it in Dallas, he “very enthusiastically” voted in favor of it. Malone also cited several steps he has taken recently to restore confidence in the church.

They include the creation of a program to compensate victims, a task force to develop a protocol for addressing adult victims of clergy sex abuse, continuing to release names of priests who have credible allegations of abuse against them, sending substantiated cases to the Vatican for adjudication and the establishment of a diocesan office of professional responsibility to investigate allegations of any type of clergy misconduct.

In explaining his reason for not resigning, Malone said he wants to work with fellow Catholics "together as a church" to emerge from this dark time of turmoil. And he says he has come to believe what some of his closest supporters have told him – that as a priest of 46 years, he was created for this very moment.

“I have to tell you the truth: With all of the ups and downs of my life or anyone’s life, I’ve always felt sustained by my faith. It’s just never been in question for me. I mean there are times like right now in our diocese where, like some of the ancient psalms, I find myself crying out to the Lord, perhaps a little more urgently, for wisdom and for courage.

“But faith, as we Catholics understand it, is never just a matter of intellectual belief, but it is always a matter of trust and a matter of action. I trust the Lord.”

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