The Movement to Restore Trust, a group of prominent Catholics that had been working with diocesan officials to address the local clerical abuse scandal, late Thursday called on Richard J. Malone to resign as bishop of Buffalo.
Just hours after Rep. Brian Higgins intensified his calls for Malone’s resignation by appealing to lay Catholics in the diocese, the most high-profile lay group dealing with the sex abuse crisis said “he has not handled current cases properly and as a result, there is a substantial risk of harm to the diocese and the good works that the Church does in this region.”
“We believe that continuing to press forward under these circumstances jeopardizes MRT’s comprehensive reform agenda and compromises our ability to be agents for positive change,” the group added.
The group’s call for Malone to step down appears to represent the most serious challenge yet to Malone's continued leadership of Western New York’s more than 600,000 Catholics, since Movement to Restore Trust had steadfastly avoided the call for resignation even as a host of Catholic politicians and others had voiced the demand.
In its Thursday statement, the group formed in 2018 “to assert the laity’s rightful role in the Church and to help lead a movement to restore trust and confidence” said that while progress had been noted, “recent events and disclosures have led us to conclude that the diocese is at a critical point and that further progress is not possible.”
The statement asked the Vatican to appoint a temporary diocesan administrator, a priest with no ties to the Diocese of Buffalo, while it considers the appointment of a permanent bishop.
“We will be making our views known to Cardinal Timothy Dolan, archbishop of New York and metropolitan for the Ecclesiastical Province of New York, which includes all eight Catholic dioceses in the state, and to the Apostolic Nuncio to the United States, Archbishop Christophe Pierre,” the group said.
As recently as Wednesday, Malone said at a news conference that he hadn’t “taken a poll” of local Catholics, but he believed more of them want him to stay and continue leading the diocese through the crisis.
He said he receives more positive than negative email and mail from area parishioners, including one woman who wrote this week to tell him all of the calls for his resignations were “just too much.”
“So there are lots of people who kind of look at it with perspective. That helps me a whole lot,” he said. “This is painful for me; don’t get me wrong. It really has made me pray more deeply and feel more united with Christ, this whole situation. If I really felt I couldn’t do it, either physically or spiritually or emotionally, or that most of the Catholic people wanted me gone, then I’d have to look at it in a different way.”
Pressure began mounting on the Movement to Restore Trust on Thursday when Higgins, during a morning news conference at Broderick Park, reacted to new and damaging revelations about Malone’s handling of sex abuse cases by calling on the laity to demand his resignation. He specifically aimed his comments at Movement to Restore Trust, whose most visible spokesman is Canisius College President John J. Hurley, because of “compelling evidence that this bishop covered it up.”
Hurley could not be reached to comment late Thursday.
Higgins calls for new leadership in the diocese
“The lay Catholic leadership of this community cannot continue to not address this,” Higgins, a Catholic Democrat from South Buffalo, told reporters. “Their silence has resulted in them becoming apologists and enablers as it relates to this bishop and the sexual abuse of children.”
Higgins said the group has emphasized “systemic change” that has not occurred. While he lauded the group’s intentions, he said it had not addressed change at the top when continuing media accounts indicate Malone countenanced abuse of children by failing to discipline offending clerics.
“You have to have faith in the head of the institution in order to restore trust,” he said. “I think the lay Catholic community has to really take a strong position on this and force a change in leadership."
“The question for some of that lay leadership is about standing up to say enough is enough here,” he added.
The Movement to Restore Trust said Thursday that it reached its call for resignation “following lengthy prayer, reflection and discussion,” while recognizing “the sex abuse scandal in the diocese dates back several decades, long before Bishop Malone arrived here.”
“Our goal remains justice and healing for the victims of sex abuse and the restoration of trust in Christ’s Church,” the group said Thursday. “In order for our Church to move forward, and for the good of the diocese, the time has come for new leadership — leadership committed to openness, transparency and co-responsibility with the laity.”
One of the group’s members, Paul D. Bauer, a retired financial executive and co-founder of the BISON Scholarship Fund, said founders of the committee became increasingly concerned in recent days with new revelations.
“The tipping point has really been the events of the last few days, weeks, relative to the issues that have been out in the press. Between seminary issues, priest issues, the tapes,” he said. “It’s going to be really difficult with the reform agenda that we’ve been working with the bishop on, to go forward in the situation where there is so much controversy out there and a lot of people in the diocese are very upset.”
While the group worked well with Malone, Bauer said the constant revelations were now complicating the relationship.
“It really hurts the process,” he said, "and I think that a new bishop coming in would not have to be concerned so much with the issues Bishop Malone has had to be concerned with.”
Bauer also said two members of the committee — not himself, but two people whom he would not name — called Malone on Thursday morning to deliver the request for his resignation.
“He said he was not going to resign,” Bauer said.
The Movement to Restore Trust, a group of about 150 people that Hurley helped organize, in July offered a series of recommendations to serve as the “framework” for future discussion. They resulted from months of best practices research in areas such as transparency, accountability and greater involvement by women and laity in the church.
That followed the group’s March release of nine broad recommendations for rebuilding trust in the diocese after the Rev. Norbert F. Orsolits, a retired priest, admitted in 2018 that he had molested “probably dozens” of boys decades ago.
But Higgins singled out the group on Thursday as the kind of organization that should be mounting pressure for change at the top in the Buffalo Diocese. He pointed to WKBW-TV reports centering around two of Malone’s closest former aides — assistant Siobhan O’Connor and the Rev. Ryszard Biernat, his secretary — who allege that the bishop failed to act on his knowledge of sexual misconduct by priests.
“There was clear and compelling evidence that this bishop protected abusive priests who raped little kids,” Higgins said. “What does that tell us?"
“I don’t know why people don’t see what they see,” he added, referring to the pair of insider whistleblowers. “This cannot just result in the bishop saying ‘I’m not leaving’ and then go on his merry way. I’m shocked that more people in this community are not standing up and demanding this bishop resign.”
Reporter Stephen T. Watson contributed to this report.
Story topics: Clergy sex cases