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Editorial: A limited mission?

Thursday’s announcement that the Vatican assigned a Brooklyn bishop to investigate the Buffalo Diocese is a positive step, even if it raises more questions than it answers.

Bishop Nicholas DiMarzio of the Diocese of Brooklyn will be sent here on an “apostolic visitation,” to gather facts about Bishop Richard J. Malone and, presumably, the diocese’s handling of the clergy sexual abuse scandals that have roiled the Catholic community here.

U.S. Apostolic Nuncio Christophe Pierre wrote in a memo that the visitation is a “non-judicial and non-administrative process that requires confidentiality.”

What will the visitation accomplish? When will it take place? Will it result in any consequences? None of those questions can yet be answered.

Earlier this year, Pope Francis introduced new misconduct protocols, in a document titled “Vos Estis Lux Mundi,” for investigating bishops alleged to have covered up cases of clergy sex abuse.

Bishop Michael Hoeppner, of Crookston, Minn., is being investigated under “Vos Estis,” the first sitting U.S. bishop to which the protocols were applied. Hoeppner is accused of pressuring a diaconal candidate to recant an allegation that he was molested by a priest.

The protocols, the pope’s signature reform law, are not being applied to Malone. The Apostolic Nuncio’s memo said only that the bishop’s visitation was not subject to “Vos Estis,” but gave no explanation.

Siobhan O’Connor, Malone’s former executive assistant who became a whistleblower, expressed alarm on Thursday that “Vos Estis” is not being applied.

“The fact that it has not been invoked after all these months strongly suggests that Rome and D.C. don’t have grave concerns about Bishop Malone’s leadership (or lack thereof) and his handling of the abuse scandal in our diocese,” O’Connor wrote on her blog.

O’Connor also questioned whether the Brooklyn bishop, DiMarzio, had the independence to do a thorough fact-finding mission.

“How effectively and objectively can a bishop investigate his brother bishop, especially if they are from the same province?” O’Connor wrote.

A statement from the Buffalo Diocese said Malone welcomes the visitation.

“Bishop Malone has committed to cooperate fully and stated that this Visitation is for the good of the Church in Buffalo,” the statement said.

We have to take the bishop at his word, but one has to wonder if a probe with more teeth, like the one in Minnesota, would be received so warmly.

Malone 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.”

In a taped conversation leaked to the media in September, Malone was heard discussing the public outcry that would ensue if details of a possible “love triangle” involving two priests and a seminarian became public. The conversation was the last straw for the Movement to Restore Trust, the lay committee formed to offer guidance to the diocese. The committee called on Malone to resign.

Rather than step down, the bishop aims to run out the clock until he reaches the mandatory retirement age of 75 in 2021. That gives Malone’s tenure a lame-duck quality. Unless Bishop DiMarzio’s visitation leads to any firm conclusions or consequences, the Buffalo Diocese will continue to limp along, bereft of strong leadership.

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