Give this much to Bishop Richard J. Malone: The problems roiling Buffalo’s Catholic diocese long predated his arrival and permeate the church, not just here, but around the world. Yet it is obvious that Malone’s management of the crisis swirling around him is insufficient to the need.
For evidence, one need look no further than the fact that two of his closest aides have seen fit to leak information to the news media. Malone’s former administrative assistant, Siobhan O’Connor, provided pages of copied documents to WKBW-TV reporter Charlie Specht last year. Those documents opened the curtains on how Malone had handled — or mishandled — allegations of sexual misconduct and inappropriate behavior against two priests.
And last month, Malone’s secretary of six years, the Rev. Ryszard Biernat, provided a secretly recorded conversation with Malone to the same station. It dealt with what Malone described as a love triangle that, in a bizarre twist, involved Biernat.
Both impugn Malone’s leadership. We believed last year that he should resign. This new episode does nothing to change our view. Nor, unfortunately, has it changed that of Malone, who repeated Wednesday that he would not step down.
As to the episode itself, it’s a mess, but one whose roots are plain. It sprouts from the church’s culture of secrecy, its complicated and inconsistent ideas about homosexuality and its celibacy requirement. The bar against women in the priesthood also likely plays a role.
Was it a love triangle? A lawyer in the case rejects the notion, but it’s easy to see how Malone reached that conclusion. In brief, a seminarian, Matthew Bojanowski, had complained to the diocese about what he said was inappropriate conduct by the Rev. Jeffrey Nowak. Bojanowski claimed sexual harassment by Nowak and a violation of the seal of confession. Nowak was, at one time, both a mentor and friend of Bojanowski, according to Malone.
At some point, Malone said, Bojanowski began seeing more of Biernat. That led Nowak to Bojanowski’s apartment, where he found, and secretly photographed, what the bishop described as a love letter from Biernat to the seminarian.
It’s a mess that occurred not because Malone is bishop but blew up in good part because of his tentative leadership. Part of that failure surely stems from the church’s devotion to secrecy.
Consider a comparison. Earlier this year, Pegula Sports and Entertainment quickly secured the resignations of two executives who had been credibly accused of sexual harassment. The action immediately became public.
Yet Malone knew about Nowak’s conduct at least since March, according to attorney Barry N. Covert, who represents Biernat and Bojanowski. Still, he did nothing substantive about it until August, when he placed Nowak on leave.
That habit of secrecy stems, at least in part, from the church’s celibacy rule, according to the research of a highly regarded expert, the late psychotherapist Richard Sipe. A former Benedictine priest who studied the church’s sexual abuse crisis, Sipe found that only about half of priests were actually celibate. That, he said, created “an atmosphere of tolerance of behaviors” — you keep my secrets and I’ll keep yours.
Some of those secrets concerned the 6 to 9% of priests Sipe found to be sexually involved with minors and many of them involved molestation of young boys. But, while the church formally frowns on homosexuality, it conspired to keep those assaults secret and the priests in office. Homosexuality and pedophilia are not related, it is important to note, but the church hasn’t really seemed to know how to deal with either.
That suggests that solving the church’s problems will take more than replacing Malone as bishop. A new leader might better handle the exploding crisis here, but if Sipe is correct, the church’s structure itself is a fundamental obstacle.
So, by the way, is lying. Specht, of WKBW, has been a diligent and effective reporter on the local church’s crisis, yet he was excluded from Malone’s press conference on Wednesday on the specious grounds that because space was limited, the diocese simply invited reporters with whom it regularly interacted.
That’s an obvious lie and it suggests the church has not yet learned the habit — or understands the value — of telling the truth.