It is difficult to say whether the figure of Buffalo’s Bishop Richard J. Malone is fundamentally one of tragedy, or of farce. Malone admits mishandling several abuse cases involving both minors and adults. He is accused of covering up behavior that may have been criminal, and of action that certainly endangered innocents, even if it did not enable any actual abuse.
Those accusations are supported by documentary evidence that has been before the public for more than a year, by accusers’ public testimony and that of other eyewitnesses, and by the bishop’s own recorded words.
“There’s no excuse,” said Bishop Malone in a video released this week, presenting new diocesan Adult Sexual Misconduct Policy and Procedures for the Diocese of Buffalo and a new Code of Pastoral Conduct for Clergy, “no explanation that will satisfy those, who wonder how it is that we have come to this point, or how it is that those in positions of authority and supposed ministry were allowed to cause so much harm, and for so long.”
Bishop Malone is half right: there is no excuse.
The explanation, however, is already largely before us, and wants only the details that a full investigation is apt to provide. Bishop Malone gave the bones of it in his rhetorical flourish: He and his predecessors allowed priests to harm people. Theirs is not a failure “as an ecclesial community,” to borrow the phrase in which Pope Francis couched the matter in August of last year. It is not “that we were not where we should have been, that we did not act in a timely manner, realizing the magnitude and the gravity of the damage done to so many lives,” as Pope Francis also said in his August 2018 Letter to the People of God.
This is no mere failure to act in a timely manner. Bishop Malone made the decisions that kept in ministry a man Malone himself described as a “sick puppy” — a man accused of violating the seal of confession — left for months not only to say Mass, but to counsel and hear the confessions of the faithful. Bishop Malone realized full well the potential for further harm. He was more concerned about the damage to his reputation, should word of his complicity in his flock’s endangerment reach the public.
“We are in a true crisis situation,” Malone is heard saying on secret recordings made by his erstwhile priest-secretary, Fr. Ryszard Biernat. “[E]veryone in the office is convinced this could be the end for me as bishop. It could force me to resign if in fact [the press] make a story,” about the ambiguous relationship — evidence suggests it was a love triangle — involving Fr. Nowak, Fr. Biernat, and a seminarian, Matthew Bojanowksi, over which Malone quietly dithered for months, until it did finally get out that he had left Fr. Nowak in place despite strong evidence of moral turpitude and other behavior gravely criminal under canon law.
In August of 2018, presenting Pope Francis’s Letter to the People of God, then-Press Office Director Greg Burke described the thrust of the missive as being “that greater accountability is needed, not only for those who committed these crimes but those who covered them up, which in many cases means bishops.” In the Letter, Pope Francis wrote that he was “conscious of the effort and work being carried out in various parts of the world to come up with the necessary means to ensure the safety and protection of the integrity of children and of vulnerable adults, as well as implementing zero tolerance and ways of making all those who perpetrate or cover up these crimes accountable.”
He went on to admit that Church leaders have, “delayed in applying these actions and sanctions that are so necessary.” Nevertheless, he went on to say, “I am confident that they will help to guarantee a greater culture of care in the present and future.”
Earlier this year, Pope Francis enacted legislation, Vos estis lux mundi. On paper, the new law is sweeping in scope. When Vatican officials presented the law in May, they touted it as a strong message and a clear signal that Church leadership at the highest levels was no longer willing to tolerate anything except absolute commitment to the most serious reform. Weary of strong messages and impatient of clear signals, neither of which have been followed by any action worth the name, the faithful — not only of Buffalo — quite simply have little or no reason to believe Church leadership at this point.
Bishop Malone told the Buffalo local outlet Spectrum News he is not going anywhere of his own accord. We are told Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York — whose responsibility it is under Vos estis to conduct an investigation — is “very aware of his responsibilities as Metropolitan under Vos estis” and is “following the situation” in Buffalo. “[Cardinal Dolan] talks it through with me,” Malone told Spectrum, “and he really doesn’t take a position on it.”
Vos estis makes it clear that the metropolitan archbishop will be responsible for conducting any investigation into a suffragan bishop. The authorization to conduct an investigation would come from Rome, but the metropolitan can request the Vatican to authorize a preliminary inquest. Indeed, the law seems to presume that, in the normal scheme of things, it will be the metropolitan who makes the request. “Unless the report [of abuse or cover-up] is manifestly unfounded, the metropolitan immediately requests, from the competent Dicastery, that he be assigned to commence the investigation.”
A dicastery of the curia could order an investigation absent a formal request from a metropolitan, but the law foresees that the metropolitan is the one who will usually take the initiative. That’s how it is on paper, anyway. As Bishop Malone told Spectrum, “It’s really up to The Holy See. If the Vatican decides to do a review of our situation here in Buffalo and of my ministry, I welcome that.”
We may be forgiven the impression that the chief concern of leading Churchmen continues to be the management of scandal, rather than real address of the crisis. It is true now — more so than it was nearly a year ago, when I said in these pages — that the true scandal is the evident carelessness of senior Churchmen for victims denied justice, for the faithful sorely tried, and for everyone who has a right to the Gospel, hence to the Church as Christ desires her, not as her appointed shepherds have made her.
One way or another, the Catholic Church’s house will be clean. In November of last year, the questions were: “Who shall do the work of cleaning?” and “Will the cleansing come before the fire sale, or after it?” The longer Church authorities delay acting, the more likely it becomes that Caesar will be the one to clean the Church’s Augean stables, and direct the fire sale, whenever it comes.
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