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Editorial: Buffalo Diocese in desperate need of reform

Bishop Richard J. Malone embarked on a media tour recently, doing interviews with print and broadcast media and last Monday holding a news conference in Cheektowaga to discuss the clergy sex abuse scandal.

Malone vowed to do a better job of being open about the diocese’s handling of the issue, saying that transparency begins with him. The prelate’s steps toward openness are welcome, but aren’t likely to relieve the pressure on him to step down or to change the way the diocese conducts business. Both of those outcomes need to happen.

Malone told the news conference the diocese has been overwhelmed by “a tsunami” of new claims of child sex abuse. The diocese added 36 priests’ names to a list of clergymen credibly accused of abuse, bringing the total to 78.

Apart from Malone’s displays of resolve and contrition, there has also been a misbegotten media counteroffensive from the diocese and its communications team, including a press release questioning the credibility of Siobhan O’Connor, the former assistant who leaked confidential diocesan documents about clergy abuse to a TV station and discussed her actions on the CBS news magazine “60 Minutes.” The diocese press release attempted to smear her for what it said were “embarrassingly contradictory” comments by O’Connor but which, in fact, were a reflection of a believer torn by genuine affection for Malone and revulsion at his actions.

That’s the kind of messaging we expect from political candidates. The fact that it came from a chancery shows how the unfolding scandal has rattled the diocese.

The 72-year-old bishop is in a tough spot, being in some cases forced to answer for crimes of abuse committed decades before he arrived in Buffalo. However, some of his statements about the diocese’s handling of priests accused of abuse still don’t ring true.

Malone states, for example, that he has never protected any priest accused of abusing a minor. Yet Rev. Fabian Maryanski, who was accused of child sexual abuse many years ago, remained in ministry at Nativity Church in Clarence until a Buffalo News article last May revealed accusations against him. There was also Rev. Arthur Smith, about whom a middle school official had warned church leaders, saying Smith was grooming an eighth-grade boy for an inappropriate relationship. Malone allowed Smith to serve as a nursing home chaplain and wrote a letter recommending him for ministry work on a cruise ship.

Malone contends that Maryanski’s case was handled by previous diocese leadership, but his name and mentions of accusations against him were in a binder in diocesan offices.

Pressure for changes at the diocese was applied earlier this month by a group of nine prominent Catholics who announced their formation of a panel to help reform the diocese’s governance structure and restore trust in the institution. The advisory group is not asking for Malone to resign, but group member John J. Hurley, president of Canisius College, said the group will not work in concert with the diocese. Its influence will be welcome.

Other voices of protest are voting with their checkbooks. Rev. Jack Ledwon, pastor of St. Joseph University Church, last week said after a clergy meeting in Cheektowaga that Malone and Auxiliary Bishop Edward M. Grosz both needed to step down.
“I think the laity is very disheartened,” Ledwon said. “People in this parish alone have said they are going to withhold $60,000 for the ‘Upon This Rock’ campaign until there is a change in leadership.”

And Paul Snyder, a Buffalo businessman and deacon at St. Mary’s Church in Swormville, sent a letter to Malone requesting his donations to “Upon This Rock” be returned. Snyder, who has publicly called upon Malone to resign, said he could not “in good conscience” continue to support the campaign, a multi-year effort to which more than $100 million has been pledged by the region’s 600,000 Catholics.

Perhaps the calls this year from prominent members of the community, including Rep. Brian Higgins and Lt. Gov. Kathy Hochul, weren’t enough to make Malone step aside and make way for new leadership. If financial pressures on the diocese coffers escalate, Malone may have no choice.

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