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Bishop Malone getting a regular dose of defiance from persistent protesters

Bishop Richard J. Malone faces a new normal when he heads out to functions for the Buffalo Diocese these days.

Instead of the traditional deference given to bishops at such events, Malone gets a regular dose of defiance from a small, but persistent group of picketers critical of his handling of an unraveling clergy abuse scandal.

Tensions between the protesters and the bishop spilled over last weekend, with both sides calling police, picketers being barred from attending a Mass and one picketer accusing the bishop of menacing her with his car.

The diocese has attempted to thwart the group in recent months by no longer publishing the bishop’s public event calendar on the diocese website or in the Western New York Catholic newspaper.

Diocese spokeswoman Kathy Spangler said the schedule wasn't being published "to avoid the disruption of sacred liturgy and other formal events." Malone, she added, "respects the right of individuals to protest but the conduct of the protesters has escalated into harassment in certain instances."

The group has found other ways to learn when Malone will be at a public outing, including this past Saturday, when the bishop presided at a Mass to install the Rev. Kevin Creagh as president and rector of Christ the King Seminary in Aurora.

And that’s where the new normal in the diocese entered into the realm of the highly irregular.

During the Mass, an off-duty East Aurora police detective, after initially denying their entry into the seminary chapel, escorted protesters inside to receive Communion, the central sacrament of the Catholic faith.

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Among the anti-Malone crowd was Philip Giglio of Depew, who said he hadn’t experienced anything like it before in his 91 years as a Catholic.

“I never would think that would ever happen nor would it be possible,” Giglio said of being escorted by a security guard to receive Communion. “If it was a prayerful picketing while we were there, why would we go in church where the Lord is and start making trouble? That doesn’t make any sense at all.”

The other picketers on Saturday were Malone’s former executive assistant Siobhan O’Connor; Amherst resident Mary Ellen Sanfilippo; and two former seminarians, Matthew Bojanowski and Stephen Parisi.

The picketers typically show up with signs such as “Malone Must Go” and recite the rosary outside venues that have included the bishop’s home, the seminary and the diocese chancery offices.

Jim Haven of Greece holds his son Augustine as he joins protesters demanding Bishop Richard J. Malone resign over his handling of the diocese's clergy sexual assault scandal on Sept. 10, 2018. (Derek Gee/Buffalo News file photo)

Detective Darren Longboat said he was hired by the seminary for the security detail to prevent any potential disturbance in the Mass on Saturday.

“The initial directive was the protesters, keep them out, let them protest, of course, in the area that’s accessible to the public,” said Longboat. “I was just concerned that if they were upset, obviously protesting the bishop, are they going to come in and try to embarrass the bishop?”

“You know how it goes. We’ve seen it all on the news. You know somebody throws a tomato or does something and creates this whole ruckus and embarrassment. And I didn’t want to see that happen for anybody,” he said.

The Mass was about half over when Longboat said he received an OK from Michael Sherry, academic dean of the seminary, to let the group in.

Longboat said he went inside with the group “just to keep order, and there was no trouble.”

The incident capped an afternoon of clashes between Malone and protesters that prompted police intervention.

Earlier, Bojanowski and Parisi protested outside the bishop’s home on Townsend Street. Parisi said at least three police cars arrived, and one officer asked them if they had a permit to protest.

Buffalo police confirmed that they were called to the bishop’s house on Saturday because of protesters outside. No one was arrested and no tickets were issued.

Also prior to the installation Mass, East Aurora police were called to the seminary campus when Sanfilippo complained that Malone's car nearly hit her as she crossed a seminary driveway on foot.

Sanfilippo called police to report the incident. Officers arrived at the seminary, but she said they consulted with Longboat and left without speaking to her.

Sanfilippo called a second time and said she wanted to file a complaint about the incident, because she said she believes Malone intentionally drove close to her to harass her. She said the police tried to discourage her from filing a complaint.

“They were downplaying everything, and you know when that happens you kind of say, ‘Well, what’s the point? But this is important. What happened was wrong and I do want to file a complaint of harassment and menacing, because that’s what it was,” she said.

O’Connor and Giglio, who were on the other side of the driveway, corroborated Sanfilippo’s account that Malone's car came within a few feet of her, but they told The News they couldn’t tell if the bishop had done so intentionally.

Malone denies directing his car in any way that threatened Sanfilippo, Spangler said.

"Anyone who knows Bishop Malone would know that the complaint is a complete fabrication and an attempt to exacerbate the turmoil he and the Diocese have been dealing with, and create a media sensation," she said.

Sanfilippo said East Aurora police appeared to be working in lockstep with the diocese by the way they handled the situation on Saturday.

“It was an open Mass to the public. We are all Catholic. We had put our protesting signs down. We put them away. And the police officer was denying our rights as the public and as Catholics, which he has no right to do,” said Sanfilippo, a parishioner of St. Mary Church in Swormville.

The picketers said the diocese overreacted to a handful of prayerful protesters, while it had failed time after time to act in preventing child sexual abuse by priests.

“This is all unnecessary. The focus needs to be on the real problem here, which we are not. We are just making our presence known, that we are against the horrors going on in the church,” said Sanfilippo. “And we are being threatened and intimidated in the hopes that we’ll go away and not bother the bishop and whoever else. But we’re not going away and we have every right to do what we’re doing, which was a peaceful, prayerful protest.”

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