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Bishop Malone promises action on clergy misconduct policy with adults

BALTIMORE – Bishop Richard J. Malone, under fire in the Buffalo Diocese over his handling of sexual misconduct cases, kept a low profile at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops' three-day meeting here that focused on how to hold bishops accountable when they’re accused of abuse or of covering up for abusive priests.

Malone avoided making comments during public debate sessions with more than 250 colleagues on two measures the bishops ultimately avoided voting upon at the Vatican's direction.

But in a brief interview with The Buffalo News, Malone said he supported the new reforms and was frustrated by their inability to vote on creating a code of conduct for bishops and a special commission of lay people and clergy to examine complaints against bishops for violating the code. Malone also discussed what he considers his mistakes in leaving two priests in ministry, one of whom was accused of making sexual advances on an adult male and another who was accused of grooming a teenage boy for an inappropriate relationship and making advances on two adults.

Here are excerpts of the interview:

What is your reaction to the Vatican’s intervening in the efforts by the bishops to establish greater accountability measures for themselves in the continuing sexual abuse crisis?

“The people, including the bishops, were expecting to be able to take some really significant action steps this week. I think we were all feeling totally frustrated. The people of God have a right to know that we’re taking hold of this situation in a serious way and making significant changes. The only sort of context in which I can make some sense of it is maybe the pope, because he’s called this meeting in February of all presidents of the episcopal conferences of the world, that maybe he wants to wait and not have individual countries move forward and have a unified response, because this thing tragically is global, not just Buffalo, not just the United States, but Chile and Germany and Ireland and every place else I suppose."

Particularly since there were not canonical implications here, could those have been handled, post-Baltimore, as what happened in Dallas in 2002 with the Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People? 

"Of course, we have to abide by the directives of the Holy See on this, but we’re going to go as far as we can, short of actually taking a vote on it. The plans we have in place in Buffalo to move forward with action steps, especially the lay task force to develop protocols for how to deal with adult misconduct. The fact of the matter is the Dallas charter has been effective, not perfect, but very, very effective. We all know how to trigger that charter if it’s a minor. But bishops will tell you, and this was my mistake, was that a priest accused of misconduct with an adult, there was no protocol. Do we remove the priest right away? Because there’s no zero tolerance, at least at this point, when it comes to adult accusations. So bishops have done sort of what I did: try to challenge the guy, get him assessed, look at the gravity of the thing. Is it possible this guy could receive some limited ministry or maybe stay on? I think that’s the way a lot of bishops have managed that, but it's the wrong way, as has become apparent in my own situation."

The chancery of the Buffalo Diocese. (Sharon Cantillon/News file photo)

Francesco Cesareo, head of the National Review Board, was pretty blunt in saying that as a bishop, if you were complicit in covering up abuse you need to resign. What do you think of that?

"We have to I think find out what being complicit means. Clearly if a bishop is complicit in not handling the abuse of a minor properly, then that’s a grave matter, it seems to me. I think we have to work out what it means in terms of the adult misconduct, because that doesn’t have the clarity and the specificity."

There are some Catholics who are pretty frustrated in Western New York who will point to the Art Smith case and say this is an example under your watch where he should have been out of ministry.

"I get it."

I wonder if you could clarify the timeline of Smith’s case, because at the time he’s accused of grooming, there wasn’t an allegation of sexual contact involving a minor, correct?

"That was being worked on just toward the end of Bishop Kmiec’s time. I know there was concern from that school that Father Smith was sending Facebook messages to an eighth-grade boy. The kid wanted it to stop and his family wanted it to stop and Smith just kept it going. My understanding is that Bishop Kmiec told him if he wanted to have the possibility of a new assignment to a parish, that he had to resign that parish, St. Mary of the Lake, and go off for assessment. But there in the document I saw at least the possibility he might put him back on, but Smith was sent out for evaluation and stayed one day and then came back, and that’s when Bishop Kmiec suspended him (in 2011). And he also would not surrender the parish. So I came in shortly after that and this is where that stood. I called him in and I insisted he resign the parish, which he did, and that he go off for evaluation, which he did. And then he came back. And I decided I would not appoint him pastor, but I thought there was enough reason to give him limited ministry, not as a pastor. I would look at that now differently, too. That’s why he was free to help out at all these parishes who were looking for someone to say Masses on weekend. With a lot of consultation, I said maybe a good place for him would be a chaplain in a nursing home."

So at that point he hadn’t been accused of sexual abuse of a minor?

"That’s right. The thing that got him in trouble was that he was Facebooking, he was messaging that kid, and it was really bothering the kid. The kid didn’t want it and the parents didn’t want it, the school didn’t want it, and he kept it up. I told him this is just all to stop. Anyway, the review board at the time said it was imprudent but it didn’t involve physical contact. It didn’t arise to the level of being call sexual abuse of a minor. For me it was enough reason not to put him back as a pastor, and I thought – it turned out to be a mistake – putting him as a chaplain at an old folks home, the Brothers of Mercy, because they were really looking for a chaplain and they were willing to take him on, and then of course you know there was some inappropriate stuff, not with children, and he’ll tell you it was nothing significant all, but I’ve learned a lot from that, and as I’ve admitted often, something I would never do again. He said, ‘Can I go on a cruise ship?’ And we had a big discussion, so I said I would let him do ministry for a week on a cruise ship. That was a mistake, and I would never, ever do it again. Then this March an actual case of abuse that went back decades came forward. He went to the review board. They found it substantiated and that’s when I put him on administrative leave."

Can you give me your thoughts on the Rev. Robert Zilliox, the Buffalo Diocese priest who on “60 Minutes” made comments critical of your handling of abuse cases?

"When I came to the diocese, I asked the question: Can I be sure as the new bishop that there’s no one in active ministry with an allegation, and they said yes, you can be sure of that. But later on I learned that in 2001 John Paul II had decreed that every substantiated case of abuse of a minor by a cleric was to go to Rome for their adjudication. And that’s when you would have heard that such and such a priest had been dismissed from the clerical state, or laicized, the world calls it defrocked … I discovered that none of that for whatever reason had happened in Buffalo. So (Zilliox) and I realized that and we started very deliberately. We would look through all these old cases. All of the guys were off the job, but we needed to identify which ones should be prioritized to go to Rome. He was helping me with that and he did a great job preparing the Fronczak case, which went to Rome … But (Zilliox) and I worked very closely. I don’t think he and I ever had any disagreements about the list of priests whose cases should be prepared to go to Rome. Of course then when he became a pastor and all that, it stopped … That’s why I’m outsourcing them now, the Roman cases."

There’s still this question of the eight or nine priests.

"They’re all off the job."

But they’re in the canonical system of being adjudicated?

"Correct. I think that’s the eight or nine. And there may be more coming."

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