The saga of a disgraced Catholic bishop in Missouri reveals how unlikely it is that the pope would quickly force Buffalo Diocese Bishop Richard J. Malone to resign over his handling of a clergy abuse scandal.
In 2012, Bishop Robert W. Finn of the Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph became the first Catholic prelate in the country to be convicted of protecting from prosecution a priest who had child pornography. A judge found Finn guilty of a misdemeanor for failing to tell police that one of his priests collected lewd images of young girls on his computer.
The case prompted an uproar — including an online petition signed by 263,000 people calling for Finn’s resignation — and generated international media attention.
Despite the conviction, Finn stayed on as bishop for nearly three more years, until Pope Francis accepted his resignation without explanation in 2015.
Malone's situation is different. He is not charged with a crime. Nearly all of the cases of alleged child sexual abuse by priests occurred decades before he was in Buffalo. There is no evidence showing he actively covered up any new allegation of child abuse against a priest.
Nonetheless, he faces a firestorm in the Diocese of Buffalo similar to the one in Kansas City, including the international media attention. For more than a year, Malone has fended off calls to resign over his handling of clergy misconduct cases. He has been accused of ignoring complaints about priests misbehaving with adults and of allowing a priest who had made inappropriate comments on Facebook to an eighth-grade boy to return to "limited ministry."
Malone appears intent on continuing in Buffalo until he hits mandatory retirement age of 75 in 2021, even with new rules implemented in June by Pope Francis to investigate bishops accused of covering up for abusive priests. Diocese spokeswoman Kathy Spangler did not respond to a request to interview Malone for this story.
At a news conference earlier this month, he said he had been given no direction from the Vatican to resign.
The papal document, “Vos Estis Lux Mundi,” applies to bishops accused of sexual abuse, as well as to bishops whose conduct includes “actions or omissions intended to interfere with or avoid civil investigations or canonical investigations” of clergy accused of sexual abuse. Some local Catholics have urged Cardinal Timothy Dolan of the Archdiocese of New York to launch a Vos Estis investigation of Malone. But it’s not clear whether such an investigation is underway or even being considered.
Cardinal monitoring situation
Under terms outlined by the pope, metropolitan archbishops are responsible for conducting the investigations. Dolan is the metropolitan archbishop for dioceses in New York state, including Buffalo.
A spokesman for Dolan told The News that the cardinal has been “consulting extensively” and “closely monitoring the situation in Buffalo for over a year.”
“He has been speaking with both clergy and laity in Buffalo as well as regularly with Bishop Malone. He’s also been in ongoing contact with the Nuncio, as well as with the Holy See,” said Joseph Zwilling, the spokesman. The Nuncio is Archbishop Christophe Pierre, a papal ambassador to the United States, who has visited the Buffalo Diocese twice since 2018.
Zwilling did not comment directly on whether Vos Estis was being applied in Buffalo.
But a canon lawyer who has long criticized the Catholic Church’s handling of sexual abuse said he doubted the pope’s new mandate would lead to any kind of remedy for the Buffalo Diocese anyway.
“It’s the system trying to fix itself and if that were an effective response it would have been fixed long ago, but it can’t. It can’t fix itself because it is a monarchy and monarchies generally don’t fix themselves except in radical ways," said the Rev. Thomas Doyle, who served in the Papal Nuncio’s office in the 1980s. "I don’t know of any monarchies where the monarch has gotten up and said, ‘Well, we think democracy is a lot better way to operate so I’m quitting. It doesn’t happen and it’s not going to happen in the Catholic church, that’s for sure.”
In addition to Finn, just a few other bishops have stepped down or been forced from office due to their mishandling of clergy sexual abuse cases.
But Doyle said those bishops are a small fraction of a “massive number” of prelates who have been accused of “negligence, cover-up, of lying, manipulating and making the whole issue happen, I mean facilitating the whole culture of sexual abuse and cover-up and self-protection.”
Still, the Vatican has always moved very slowly when it comes to policing bishops around the world, he said.
“I have more confidence in him than many others, but I also know that the pope is seriously constrained by the Vatican curia and the fact that he’s only one guy and he is on top of this multinational church that has a billion people,” said Doyle. “The one thing in dealing with the Holy See is they don’t operate quickly. Something like this, the pot takes a while to boil over.”
Buffalo vs. Kansas City
In the meantime, the Buffalo Diocese now appears to be in the same position as the Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph a few years ago, said Jude Huntz, a Buffalo native who served as diocese chancellor under Finn from 2012 to 2014.
“You’re getting to a tipping point of just having the general inability to govern a place. That’s what happened here in Kansas City. After Bishop Finn was convicted, he could not govern the diocese effectively. Nobody was listening to him. People just kind of did what they wanted,” said Huntz. “He lacked the moral authority to be able to get anything done.”
Huntz has kept tabs on the Buffalo Diocese through media coverage and family and friends. He said he senses that it has reached a point where Malone can’t effectively govern anymore, either.
In Kansas City, Mass attendance and giving both plummeted as people fumed with a sense of powerlessness over Finn's continuing presence, he said.
Giving and mass attendance also are down in many Buffalo Diocese parishes, according to area pastors.
"It just feels like a beaten down church," said Huntz.
A recent poll by The Buffalo News found that 86 percent of Catholics and lapsed Catholics who were surveyed said they wanted Malone to resign.
Secret tapes erode Malone's support
Malone, embattled over his handling of complaints of clergy sex abuse and misconduct, for more than a year, has resisted calls for his resignation. Those calls intensified over the past month, with the release of private audio recordings that suggest the bishop tried to keep a lid on an alleged sexual harassment by a priest of an adult seminarian and on another priest’s love letter to the seminarian.
The surfacing of the embarrassing recordings was the latest in a series of developments 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.
The recordings prompted the Movement to Restore Trust, a group of prominent lay Catholics that had been working for months with the diocese to implement a variety of reforms, to withdraw its support of Malone and urge him to resign immediately.
The Movement to Restore Trust now is closely following “the discussion that apparently is occurring in the Archdiocese of New York about applying the requirements of Vos Estis to what has happened up here in Buffalo,” said Canisius College President John J. Hurley, a member of the MRT coordinating committee.
In addition to “Vos Estis,” the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops in June approved a new document, “Affirming Our Episcopal Commitments,” in which they agreed to “respond directly and appropriately to cases of sexual abuse of minors or vulnerable persons, sexual misconduct, and the mishandling of such cases by bishops.”
The document notes that some bishops have failed to uphold the promises they gave at their ordinations “by not responding morally, pastorally, and effectively to allegations of abuse or misconduct.”
It appears that applies to the Buffalo Diocese and other bishops should take note, said Hurley.
“The steady stream of bad news out of Buffalo really calls into the question as to whether the bishop has responded morally, pastorally, effectively to the allegations of abuse committed by priests in his diocese. That’s a question we would have,” he said.
Malone has supporters
But Malone still has support from some area Catholics who believe the bishop has tried his best to lead the diocese through the turmoil of the scandal.
“He really did step into a hornet’s nest here that he didn’t create,” said Diane Woloszyn, a parishioner of St. Mary Church in Arcade. “I think he’s trying to move forward, he’s trying to do what’s best for the diocese, and I think he’s taken a hit that isn’t all his to take.”
The most recent known accusation of child sexual abuse in the Buffalo Diocese involves an alleged incident from 2001, more than a decade before Malone arrived here. Per the terms of national policy of the U.S. Catholic bishops, Malone has put 22 priests on administrative leave due to allegations of abuse lodged since March 2018. Investigations by an outside attorney substantiated claims against nine of the priests, who remain suspended as their cases proceed to Rome for a review. Nine other priests were cleared by the investigation and reinstated, and four priests are still on leave as a diocesan investigation continues.
Under Malone, the diocese settled 106 claims for $17.5 million through a compensation program for childhood sex abuse victims. It's now facing 166 lawsuits — more than any other defendant in the state — that have been filed under the new Child Victims Act.
Woloszyn said Malone’s biggest mistake perhaps was shortsightedness in handling allegations of clergy misconduct with adults.
“The abuse of adults maybe wasn’t on his radar. The focus was on children. That was maybe a huge awakening for the bishop, that, hey, this is also wrong,” she said.
Woloszyn said she believes Malone should stay for practical reasons. He knows more than anyone else what has transpired in the diocese and what needs to be done to fix it, she said.
If Malone left now, the diocese would be stuck in a holding pattern until his replacement came on board, a process that could take many months, said Woloszyn, who serves on the diocese pastoral council, a group of lay people that recently voted to encourage the bishop to stay on.
Besides, Buffalo’s issues probably aren’t front and center for Pope Francis at the moment, she said.
“Not to negate our problems, but the pope is the pope for the world and in the world I’m quite certain there are worse, more immediate situations that the pope is addressing,” said Woloszyn. “That does not negate the severity of our problems, but if we have to wait for a response from the pope, perhaps it would be a year and a half, when the bishop has to retire anyway. In which case, this is all a wash. What are we doing this for?”
Marilyn Neil said she believes Malone has become a scapegoat, even though the diocese’s sex abuse problems festered long before he arrived here from Maine in 2012.
“The bishop is going through trial by media, and trial by media doesn’t have all the facts and the truth,” said Neil, a parishioner of St. Louis Church.
Peter Spira, who serves on the board of the Foundation of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Buffalo regularly attends Mass at St. Joseph Cathedral, said he’s found Malone to be a man of integrity and compassion who is working in the best interests of survivors of childhood sexual abuse by clergy and the diocese as a whole.
Spira said he doesn’t believe Malone has covered up or tried to cover up abuse in the Buffalo Diocese.
Instead, he said he thinks the bishop is operating in uncharted waters and in an environment where information is constantly surfacing and he’s unable to provide answers as quickly as people expect.
Spira said he’s urged Malone to stay on.
“The easier way would be to leave,” he said. “He wants to stay and act courageously to put the church and the victims as whole as he can. I still feel that’s what he’s attempting to do.”
Story topics: Clergy sex cases