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Vatican: Buffalo Bishop Malone has stepped down

The press office for Pope Francis early Wednesday announced that Buffalo Bishop Richard J. Malone has stepped down.

The Vatican press office said Pope Francis had accepted Malone's resignation "from the pastoral care of the Diocese of Buffalo."

Bishop Edward B. Scharfenberger of the Albany Diocese will take over as apostolic administrator of the Buffalo Diocese until Malone’s permanent replacement is named.

The announcement in an early morning press bulletin from the Vatican ended weeks of speculation that Malone's tenure would soon end and confirmed reports this week that his departure would come Wednesday.

The resignation happened more than a year after Western New York area Catholics began calling for his removal over his handling of a clergy sex abuse scandal.

It also came 15 months before Malone’s 75th birthday, the date upon which bishops typically submit a resignation letter to the pope, as required by canon law. Up until this week, Malone had repeatedly maintained he would stay on as Buffalo bishop until he turned in 75 in 2021.

Bishop Edward B. Scharfenberger speaks with reporters at the Catholic Center in Buffalo on Wednesday, Dec. 4, 2019. (Mark Mulville/Buffalo News)

The diocese released a statement from Malone Wednesday and scheduled a news conference for 10:30 a.m.

["I am here to help you heal," Scharfenberger says as he is introduced at Wednesday's Buffalo Diocese news conference]

"Despite the measurable progress we have achieved together, I have concluded after much prayer and discernment that the spiritual welfare of the people of the Diocese of Buffalo will be better served by a new bishop who perhaps is better able to bring about the reconciliation, healing and renewal that is so needed," Malone said in the statement. "It is my honest assessment that I have accomplished as much as I am able to, and that there remain divisions and wounds that I am unable to bind and heal."

Malone was the 14th bishop in the Buffalo Diocese's history. He has been heavily criticized for his handling of a clergy abuse scandal that has rocked the diocese for nearly two years.

A communique from the Office of U.S. Papal Nuncio Archbishop Christophe Pierre said that Malone had requested an early retirement while he was in Rome three weeks ago to meet with Pope Francis as part of an ad limina trip with the other bishops of New York State.

[Related: Meet Bishop Scharfenberger, expected to be Buffalo Diocese's temporary administrator]

After meeting with the pope to discuss the clergy abuse scandal, Malone consulted with other senior church officials before deciding to ask 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.”

The Vatican announcement gave no details of the circumstances of Malone's resignation and did not specify that it was an early retirement.

Dolan and Pierre did not respond Tuesday to a Buffalo News request for comment.

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.

The statement from the nuncio's office said that Malone was "made aware" of the results of the report and then asked the pope for an early retirement.

Malone also said he was made aware of the "general conclusions" of the report and that they were a factor in his discerning to request an early retirement. Malone said he intended to continue to "live among" the people of the Buffalo Diocese as bishop emeritus, and "to be available to serve in whatever ways that our Apostolic Administrator and new bishop determines is best."

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When Malone, 73, returned from the “ad limina” visit in Rome, he issued a statement Nov. 18 restating his position that he had no intention of resigning.

In that statement, Malone said “… it was clear that the pope understands the difficulties and distress we here in Buffalo and I, personally, have been experiencing."

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.

Scharfenberger has been bishop of the Albany Diocese since 2014 and will remain in that role while he serves in Buffalo.

“I am honored to serve as Apostolic Administrator of the Diocese of Buffalo during these challenging times, and I am humbled by the task put before me. I ask for your prayers as we begin this journey together, and I look forward to getting to know the people of this great diocese,” Scharfenberger said in a statement released by the Albany Diocese.  “I will be doing a lot of listening and learning.”

[Related: Vatican began preparing weeks ago to replace Malone as bishop]

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.

Prominent Catholics welcome Malone's resignation, seek deeper change

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