Buffalo, N.Y., Dec 4, 2019 / 12:25 pm (CNA).- Bishop Edward Scharfenberger of Albany spoke to the press Wednesday following his appointment as Apostolic Administrator of the Diocese of Buffalo, and emphasized that although he is not yet sure how exactly he will divide his time between the two dioceses he is now tasked with shepherding, he trusts Pope Francis’ decision to appoint him.
“I’m not here as a knight in shining armor. I’m not here as the fix-it man. I’m just here as a spiritual father,” Scharfenberger told the press Dec. 4.
“Fear is useless, it’s faith that counts, my personal relationship with Jesus Christ— I believe that He loves me and that He loves every person,” Scharfenberger said.
He stressed his desire for “openness” in moving forward with the diocese, and pledged to work toward healing for those who have been hurt.
Bishop Richard Malone, who has for over a year faced heavy criticism for his handling of cases of clerical sexual abuse in the diocese, asked Pope Francis for an “early retirement” during last month’s ad limina visit in Rome, and on Wednesday Pope Francis accepted his resignation.
The Apostolic Nunciature in Washington, D.C. announced in October that Bishop Nicholas DiMarzio of Brooklyn had been asked to lead an apostolic visitation and canonical inspection of the Buffalo diocese on behalf of the Vatican Congregation for Bishops.
That review concluded at the end of October, with DiMarzio having made three trips to Buffalo, and interviewing more than 80 people before submitting his report to Rome. The details of DiMarzio’s apostolic visitation have not been released, and the Vatican has not suggested that Malone has been formally accused of any particular canonical crime.
Malone said he had been made aware of the “general conclusions” of the report and the conclusions had factored into his discernment to resign, but that he had done so “freely and voluntarily.”
When asked if he had read DiMarzio’s report, Scharfenberger said that he had not. Reporters pressed Scharfenberger on whether he had met with or spoken with Malone about the situation in the diocese, and Scharfenberger said he and Malone had met on a bus in Rome, and that Malone had “spoken from the heart” about the difficulties he was facing in the diocese.
Scharfenberger said he thinks Malone made a prudent decision to withdraw as bishop when he did, and that he does not have any immediate plans to meet with Malone. Meeting with him “is not my job,” he said, adding that the only communications about the situation he has had are with the nuncio.
Scharfenberger emphasized that his position as apostolic administrator is by definition temporary, and the decision of who will ultimately lead the diocese is entirely up to the Holy See.
“It’s not about me, it’s about the mission of the Church,” he said.
“I try to open my heart, but ultimately my confidence is in the Lord…I say, ‘Lord Jesus I trust in you.’”
When asked by a reporter whether he thinks there is a need for a complete house cleaning of all of Malone’s advisors in the diocesan chancery, including Auxiliary Bishop Edward Grosz and Attorney Terry Connors, Scharfenberger said he thinks “a clean sweep” of Malone’s advisors is “too broad a stroke,” but that he would look into it.
In his statement, Malone announced his intention to continue to reside in the diocese as Bishop Emeritus, “and to be available to serve in whatever ways that our Apostolic Administrator and new bishop determines is best.”
The bishop emeritus becomes a member of the clergy, Scharfenberger said, and added that it would be within the scope of his office to “limit” Bishop Malone if necessary.
Scharfenberger said his commitment is to be physically present in the diocese at least one day a week. Options for connecting digitally, such as live streaming, will also be considered, he said.
“The time that I give is not limited to me being physically present,” he said.
“In my heart is a desire to be a parish priest,” he said, adding that he wants to hear how he can help the people of the Buffalo diocese.
Scharfenberger, who has previously served on a diocesan review board, said it is his goal to encourage parishes in the diocese to be places where people feel welcome and comfortable talking about abuse they may have faced.
Scharfenberger said when he speaks to a congregation, he tends to think that 20-25% have suffered some form of abuse, such as sexual abuse or domestic violence. He said a priest once estimated to him it could be as high as 50%.
“We’re all hurting,” he said, adding that his number one priority is “openness in conversation, particularly with those who have been hurt the most.”
Scharfenberger said although there’s no question that trust in the hierarchy in Buffalo has been broken and compromised, he urged the faithful not to “judge [all priests] as a class.” When asked if he would release the personnel files of all priests in the diocese accused of abuse, he pledged that “anything I can do within the scope of canon law, I will do.”
In November 2018, a former Buffalo chancery employee leaked confidential diocesan documents related to the handling of claims of clerical sexual abuse. The documents were widely reported to suggest Malone had covered-up some claims of sexual abuse, an allegation the bishop denied.
Six months later, in April 2019, Malone apologized for his handling of some cases in the diocese, and said he would work to restore trust. The bishop particularly apologized for his 2015 support of Fr. Art Smith, a priest who had faced repeated allegations of abuse and misconduct with minors.
In August 2019, a RICO lawsuit was filed against the diocese and the bishop, alleging that the response of the diocese was comparable to an organized crime syndicate.
Recordings of private conversations released in early September appeared to show that Malone believed sexual harassment accusations made against a diocesan priest months before the bishop removed the priest from ministry. In one recording, the bishop is heard to say that if the media were to report on the situation, “it could force me to resign.”
“I have acknowledged on many occasions the mistakes I have made [in not] addressing more swiftly personnel issues that, in my view, required time to sort out complex details pertaining to behavior between adults,” Malone said in his Dec. 4 statement.
“In extensive listening sessions across our Diocese, I have heard your dismay and rightful concerns. I have been personally affected by the hurt and disappointment you have expressed, all of which have informed our actions. I have sought your understanding, your advice, your patience and your forgiveness.”
Scharfenberger urged any victims of abuse to immediately contact law enforcement before contacting the diocese.
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