A clergy abuse scandal roiling the Buffalo Diocese for nearly two years was on the cusp of entering a new phase on Wednesday, with the Vatican expected to announce that Bishop Richard J. Malone is stepping down.
Two sources confirmed Tuesday that diocese officials were organizing a news conference to address Malone’s departure, which is expected to be announced by the Vatican early Wednesday morning.
The Vatican also was expected to appoint Bishop Edward B. Scharfenberger, head of the Albany Diocese, as apostolic administrator, to lead the Buffalo Diocese until a new permanent bishop is named.
Two sources said it’s unlikely Malone will attend the news conference. Malone was believed to have gone on a Thanksgiving vacation to his home on Cape Cod in Massachusetts, and had not returned to Western New York as of Tuesday afternoon, according to the sources.
The Buffalo News was unable to confirm if Scharfenberger will be in town on Wednesday.
"There has been no announcement from the Holy See regarding the Diocese of Buffalo. Unless and until the Holy See makes an announcement, we cannot offer any comment,” Albany Diocese spokesperson Mary DeTurris Poust said.
Buffalo Diocese spokeswoman Kathy Spangler did not respond to requests for comment.
Malone met three weeks ago with Pope Francis in Rome to discuss the clergy sex abuse scandal in the Buffalo Diocese. After that, the bishop consulted with other senior church officials before deciding to ask the pope for permission to retire early, a source in Buffalo said Tuesday.
Malone had additional discussions with Cardinal Timothy M. Dolan of the Archdiocese of New York and U.S. Papal Nuncio Archbishop Christophe Pierre, the source said.
“I think a consensus was reached among them that he would seek early retirement for the good of the diocese. The pope approved his request. No one has demanded the bishop’s resignation,” the Buffalo source said. “In Bishop Malone’s extended meeting with the pope, the Holy Father was very supportive of the bishop.”
Dolan and Pierre did not respond Tuesday to a Buffalo News request for comment.
However, Vatican correspondent Christopher Lamb of The Tablet, a London-based Catholic weekly, reported Nov. 13 on Twitter that Malone had informed Pierre a week earlier of his decision to submit a resignation letter, following a Vatican-ordered investigation into the Buffalo Diocese that was conducted by Brooklyn Diocese Bishop Nicholas DiMarzio.
Online Catholic Church chronicler Rocco Palmo first reported Monday on his “Whispers in the Loggia” blog that the Vatican was expected to announce Wednesday that Malone would step down.
DiMarzio submitted a report on the Buffalo Diocese to the Vatican in early November. The contents of the DiMarzio report have not been made public.
Malone resisted calls for his resignation for more than a year, and he maintained that he would stay on until reaching the mandatory retirement age of 75 in 2021.
When Malone, 73, returned from the “ad limina” papal visit with other bishops from New York State, he issued a statement Nov. 18 restating his position that he had no intention of resigning.
In the statement, Malone said, “ … it was clear that the pope understands the difficulties and distress we here in Buffalo and I, personally, have been experiencing."
So what changed?
The source who maintains that Malone sought early retirement said the bishop had been thinking about stepping aside "for awhile and realized he has become more of an obstacle, a lightning rod, and it is time to move forward with the process of healing and uniting the diocese."
The Buffalo Diocese has been in crisis since February 2018, when the Rev. Norbert F. Orsolits, a retired priest, told The News that he had molested probably dozens of boys, an admission that led to revelations of cover-ups of clergy sex abuse complaints against other priests. The diocese paid $17.5 million to 106 childhood victims through a compensation fund. It is now facing more than 220 lawsuits filed by others who allege they were molested as minors by area priests. More Child Victims Act lawsuits have been filed against the Buffalo Diocese than against any other defendant in the state.
The diocese also is the subject of an FBI probe that includes the subpoena of diocese records and interviews of several dozen potential witnesses and a civil investigation by the state Attorney General's Office.
A poll by The Buffalo News showed that 86% of Catholics or lapsed Catholics in Erie and Niagara counties wanted Malone to step down.
Canisius College President John J. Hurley said Tuesday that Malone had nothing to do with the cover-up of clergy sexual abuse cases that happened decades ago under past bishops, but "in his attempt to defend the system that was put in place and to perpetuate the secrecy about it, he ended up getting tagged with all of that."
"On the one hand, I think he was talking about being committed to addressing the situation and cleaning up the mess, but what people saw was, well, he isn't really doing that," said Hurley, a member of the organizing committee of the Movement to Restore Trust, a group of prominent local Catholics who in September called on Malone to step down. "So he ends up getting tagged with the responsibility for things that did not happen on his watch. But he didn't fix them, either."
Paul Bauer, another member of the Movement to Restore Trust, issued a statement Tuesday on behalf of the group: “The Movement to Restore Trust looks forward to working with Bishop Scharfenberger in his role as apostolic administrator of the diocese. We’re anxious to resume work … as we believe it will help move the church toward a place of healing and reconciliation.”
The group has scheduled a public meeting for 9 a.m. Saturday at Canisius College’s Montante Cultural Center.
“We want to get a lot of input from people as the diocese plans to move forward,” Bauer said. “Everyone is invited.”
Siobhan O'Connor, Malone's former executive assistant who leaked to WKBW-TV internal diocese documents that showed more priests had been accused of abuse than the diocese had acknowledged publicly, said the bishop's pending departure was cause for hope and sadness at the same time.
“I never expected it to come to this and I never wanted it to, either,” said O’Connor. “When I was working side by side with Bishop Malone, and then when I left the Catholic Center, I continued to hope that he would make the necessary changes and that he would right his course."
O'Connor said Malone's stepping down "will be a step toward healing" in the diocese.