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Echoing Boston crisis, Buffalo priest's letter urges bishops to step down

The pastor of one of the region’s largest and wealthiest Catholic parishes is urging fellow priests to call upon Bishop Richard J. Malone and Auxiliary Bishop Edward M. Grosz to resign and let others lead the Buffalo Diocese.

The Rev. Robert Zilliox, pastor of St. Mary Church in Swormville, has contacted about 200 priests and asked them to sign a letter demanding that Malone step down immediately in the wake of a series of scandals in which the bishop’s public statements on handling clergy sex abuse and misconduct accusations appeared to contradict what he was saying and doing in private.

“Your office as our bishop and chief shepherd has been so compromised, that it is, in fact, no longer possible for you to exercise the spiritual leadership required for the church at Buffalo to heal and grow in holiness,” the letter states.

Zilliox wouldn't say how many priests agreed to sign the letter, but The News learned from another source that, as of Tuesday morning, about a dozen priests had signed.

“There are some priests that have said yes. There are some priests that have said absolutely not,” Zilliox said.

The letter circulating among Buffalo clergy is worded very similarly to a letter signed in 2002 by 58 priests who demanded the resignation of Cardinal Bernard F. Law of the Archdiocese of Boston, following a Boston Globe expose of Law’s mishandling of child sex abuse cases and pedophile priests.

Law resigned at the Vatican about a week after getting the letter.

Malone insisted last week that a majority of priests and deacons continued to support him. Diocese spokeswoman Kathy Spangler did not respond Tuesday to a request for comment about the letter.

Buffalo Diocese Bishop Richard J. Malone (Robert Kirkham/Buffalo News)

In 2018, Zilliox revealed to his congregation that as a boy he had been sexually abused by a priest, and he was interviewed in a “60 Minutes” segment last October that was critical of Malone’s handling of abuse complaints and accused priests.

Zilliox declined interview requests and kept a low profile over the past year or so, as the diocese’s sex abuse scandal continued to unfold. He said he had forgiven Malone for past mistakes and wanted to give him “the benefit of the doubt” and time to steer the diocese toward calmer waters.

But Zilliox told The Buffalo News this week that Malone has failed to lead in the right direction, plunging the diocese deeper into crisis.

The breaking point for Zilliox was the confluence in recent weeks of the filing of Child Victims Act lawsuits, the release of audio recordings revealing Malone’s deep concern over being caught covering up a “love triangle” involving two priests and an adult seminarian and the softening of reforms urged by a Catholic lay group.

“It’s a web of deceit. It’s beyond belief. This is something out of 'The Da Vinci Code,' for God’s sake,” said Zilliox. “We need a purification, we need a purging here, because there’s just been a culture for too long and all the good guys are getting jerked around and the bad guys seem to be getting away with murder. It’s ridiculous.”

Zilliox characterized as "spineless" priests who don't sign the letter or call on their own for the bishop to step down.

Circulation of the letter followed a call last week for Malone to step down as bishop from the Movement to Restore Trust, a group of prominent area Catholics that had been working with the diocese to address the clergy abuse scandal.

The Buffalo Diocese has been in crisis for more than a year and a half, since the retired Rev. Norbert F. Orsolits admitted to The News that he had molested “probably dozens” of boys from the 1960s through the 1980s. The admission led to revelations of cover-ups of clergy sex abuse from decades ago that resulted in $17.5 million in settlement payments to 106 childhood sex abuse victims, a civil investigation by the state Attorney General's Office, an FBI probe including a subpoena of diocese records and more than 100 lawsuits filed against the diocese under the Child Victims Act.

Zilliox said he was contacting about 200 priests by email. He was giving priests until Wednesday to attach their names as signatories to the letter before submitting it to Malone.

Several lay Catholics have told The News they were encouraging area priests to sign the letter.

The Rev. Jacob Ledwon, pastor of St. Joseph University Church, told parishioners over the weekend that he was signing the letter, and he received a standing ovation at the end of Mass.

“I told them they had a voice and they should use it, whether they agree with me or not,” said Ledwon, who asked Malone to resign last fall during a meeting between clergy and the bishop at Infant of Prague Church in Cheektowaga.

The Rev. Paul D. Seil, pastor of St. Bernadette Church in Orchard Park, told The News that the people of his parish have asked him to sign the letter and he will do so, even though he was saddened by it.

"I have not had anyone say to me, 'Father Paul, don't sign the letter,'" said Seil.

Seil acknowledged some priests were reluctant to sign.

Other priests privately acknowledged that they thought Malone made major mistakes as bishop but said they did not intend to sign the letter because they believe his resignation will lead to more chaos in the diocese.

At least one deacon has written to the bishop urging him to stay on and clean the slate in the diocese so that the next bishop will have a fresh start.

Zilliox said the response of his brother priests will help determine the future of his own priesthood.

“I cannot be part of a brotherhood that thinks this behavior and these actions are acceptable,” he said. “If my brother priests are not going to step up, then I need to walk away and just be a Catholic and find some other way to serve the church. That’s where I’m at.”

He also said he was not concerned that Malone would remove him as pastor of St. Mary because of the letter.

Zilliox told his congregation last October that a priest sexually abused him nearly 40 years ago when he was a 13-year-old boy. He did not name the priest at the time, but he told The News this week that the alleged perpetrator was the Rev. Gerald A. Smyczynski, when Zilliox was a parishioner at St. Barnabas Church in Cheektowaga.

Smyczynski, who died in 1999, was identified by the diocese in 2018 as a priest credibly accused of sexual misconduct with a minor.

Zilliox didn’t tell church officials about the abuse until February 2018, when the stresses of working as a canon lawyer for the diocese on abuse cases brought his own abuse “back to the forefront of my consciousness.”

Zilliox said he applied to the diocese’s program to compensate child sex abuse victims and received “something” but said he wasn’t supposed to talk about the award.

Zilliox said he was aware of two or three cases of abuse involving Smyczynski.

“I regret that I didn’t say anything sooner,” Zilliox said.

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