Buffalo, N.Y., Sep 27, 2019 / 12:00 pm (CNA).- The Diocese of Buffalo is shutting down its credit cards, effective Friday afternoon. Although some have interpreted the move as a step towards bankruptcy, officials said the decision was unrelated to recent scandals and lawsuits affecting the diocese.
According to reports from local news station WGRZ, diocesan credit cards will reportedly be shut down as of 2 p.m. on Sept. 27. A senior source connected to the diocese said that two priests confirmed the diocese is switching from its current credit cards to another bank.
“The diocese has not made any determination regarding filing for Chapter 11 reorganization,” diocesan communications director Kathy Spanger said in a Thursday statement provided to CNA.
“The memo that was sent out today, while stating our current credit card account is being closed, told cardholders that they will be updated shortly regarding our replacement card program,” the statement noted on Thursday.
The news comes as the diocese is reportedly facing more than 160 lawsuits regarding accusations of child sexual abuse.
The enactment of the Child Victims Act in New York earlier this year expanded the statute of limitations for child sexual abuse survivors to file lawsuits, creating a one-year filing window for suits related to historical cases.
On Wednesday, local news reported that the Diocese of Buffalo is the defendant in 168 lawsuits filed under the Child Victims Act since the filing window began in August.
Earlier in September, the New York Attorney General’s office launched an investigation into all dioceses in the state, including Buffalo. The diocese is also the subject of a lawsuit based on the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) Act which is typically invoked against organized crime.
With the high number of lawsuits against the diocese, Bishop Malone has admitted that he has considered filing for Chapter 11 bankruptcy; the neighboring Diocese of Rochester has already filed for Chapter 11 reorganization.
The diocese has been in the national spotlight over the last year, following whistleblower reports of alleged covering up of clerical sexual abuse in the diocese.
Bishop Malone’s former executive assistant Siobahn O’Connor released documents last year that appear to show Bishop Malone consulting diocesan lawyers before announcing 42 accusations of “criminal, abusive or inappropriate behavior” by clergy—out of over one hundred accusations—in the interests of transparency, while keeping the majority of the accusations from the public eye.
Bishop Malone has also faced criticism over his handling of the case of diocesan priest Fr. Art Smith, who in 2011 was placed on leave by the previous Bishop Edward Kmiec following allegations of sending inappropriate Facebook messages to a minor.
Fr. Smith was reinstated to ministry by Bishop Malone in 2012 after the priest spent time at a treatment center, and was assigned to a nursing home. Fr. Smith was later accused of inappropriate touching of two young adult men while he was at the home, and Smith also heard confessions at a diocesan youth conference during that time. Malone also approved of Fr. Smith serving as a chaplain on a cruise ship in 2015.
In a 2015 letter to Vatican officials, Malone cited Smith’s grooming of a young boy, refusal to stay in a treatment center, allegations of inappropriate touching of at least four young men, and repeated boundary issues; in the same letter, Bishop Malone said that he had granted Fr. Smith “faculties to function as a priest” in the diocese due to his “cooperation in regard to regular counseling.”
The priest was eventually suspended in 2018 after the diocese said it had received a “substantiated” allegation of sexual abuse of a minor, made against Fr. Smith.
In September, local news station WKBW released audio of conversations between Bishop Malone and his then-priest secretary Fr. Rishard Biernat, and others in the diocese, that were taped by Fr. Biernat. The recordings showed Bishop Malone in March of 2019 apparently believing accusations of sexual harassment and abuse of the seal of the confessional made against diocesan priest Fr. Jeffrey Nowak by then-seminarian Matthew Bojanowski.
Months after those conversations, however, Fr. Nowak still had not been removed from ministry and another conversation recorded on August 2 showed Malone saying that the situation of Fr. Nowak, if made public, could “be the end for me as bishop.”
“We are in a true crisis situation. True crisis. And everyone in the office is convinced this could be the end for me as bishop,” Malone said in an August 2 conversation as he expressed his fear that the accusations against Fr. Nowak would be made public. Malone also suspected that Fr. Nowak was jealous that Bojanowski had supposedly developed a new relationship with Fr. Biernat, that could be construed to be a “love triangle,” and that Fr. Nowak could go public with it. Biernat has said his relationship with Bojanowski is platonic.
On Monday, it was reported that the local Erie County district attorney had begun a criminal investigation into Bojanowski’s allegations of grooming and sexual harassment made against Fr. Nowak, who is currently on administrative leave.
Malone announced on Tuesday a new code of conduct for clergy, and a new process for handling claims of sexual abuse allegedly committed by clergy and staff against adults.
The bishop has said repeatedly that he will not resign. In a Sept. 4 press conference, he said that “I fully understand the rage and the dismay and perhaps the incredulity, a lack of trust, that so many people in the community, not only Catholics, feel.”
“And I may be a part of that, because I’m the bishop currently,” he said, “but a lot of it is the weight of decades of bad, bad things that some priests did. And so I accept that. And I think if I can accept that and try to move on and try to work with the folks who are so committed to restoring trust and all of that, that we can turn this around.”
Malone’s metropolitan archbishop, Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York, was reportedly “consulting extensively” with individuals on the ground in the diocese over whether or not to investigate Malone, according to a Sept. 10 CNA interview with an archdiocesan spokesman.
Pope Francis’ new norms—Vos estis lux mundi—for investigating bishops accused of sexual abuse, coercion, or of interfering in an investigation of such misconduct—gives metropolitan archbishops charge of investigating bishops, with the prior approval of the Vatican.
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