Catholics in Buffalo reacted with relief last week, when news broke that the embattled bishop of the troubled diocese in western New York had thrown in the towel after more than 18 months of unremitting and increasingly intense critical attention to his record.
Whistleblower Siobhan O’Connor told the Catholic Herald: “My immediate reaction was one of relief that it had truly happened. Bishop [Richard] Malone’s resignation was a necessity, not a victory.”
She described her immediate reaction to the news as “bittersweet” and went on to note, “I couldn’t help but think of what might have been. If Bishop Malone had handled the situation in Buffalo effectively and transparently from the start, I would still be working for him rather than commenting on his resignation.”
She continued: “His resignation speaks to the power of the truth and is a credit to courageous survivors, committed laity and the grace of God.”
Still, Bishop Malone (pictured) resigned; Pope Francis did not remove him. There has been no canonical investigation of crimes alleged, despite evidence suggesting that Bishop Malone and others under him may have violated Church law (which he denies).
The long and the short of it is that Church leadership chose not to investigate either Bishop Malone or the Buffalo diocese with the very procedural tools it recently designed and built, which seemed tailor-made for the situation in the diocese which the bishop led for seven years. If churchmen consider that a victory, it may prove to have been a Pyrrhic one.
In any case, the man Pope Francis chose to oversee the transition to new, more permanent leadership in Buffalo is Albany’s Bishop Edward Scharfenberger.
Bishop Scharfenberger’s job is unenviable. It will be bad enough anyway for Bishop Malone’s replacement. But Scharfenberger not only faces the continuing fallout, but also has no mandate to effect reforms for which the sorely tried faithful of Buffalo are impatient.
“I am here for you,” Bishop Scharfenberger told the faithful at a press conference upon his arrival in Buffalo. “I am here to listen to you, I am here to walk with you, I am here to help you heal.
“I didn’t get a big document from the Vatican that said, ‘This is what you have to do’,” the bishop added. “I have no marching orders, other than to show up and be who I am.”
Bishop Scharfenberger promised to have a close look at those who served Bishop Malone in an advisory capacity, and expressed a willingness to clean house as need be. Asked about the role of the long-serving auxiliary bishop in Buffalo, Edward Grosz – himself accused of serious mismanagement and even cover-up (charges he denies) – Bishop Scharfenberger’s answer gave the impression he might not be as fully acquainted with the Buffalo crisis as one might expect.
“You’re giving me information that I’m hearing now today,” Bishop Scharfenberger said in response to a journalist’s query that began by noting Bishop Grosz’s involvement in handling abuse cases over several decades.
“The auxiliary bishop’s handwriting,” said WKBW reporter Charlie Specht, who broke the story of Bishop Malone’s mismanagement, “was literally on many of the cover-ups that have gone on here. How can people have faith and trust that the diocese under your administration is charting a new course, when you have part of the old guard still in place here?”
It’s a good question. Bishop Grosz later announced that he would be stepping back from his duties and retiring in February.
“What I see,” Bishop Scharfenberger said at the news conference, “is a need for a tremendous amount of healing.” He’s not likely to find much disagreement about that, even among Bishop Malone’s erstwhile supporters. The question is whether that healing can come without a genuine reckoning.
“Vigilance is our watchword,” O’Connor told the Herald. “We want Bishop Scharfenberger – and our permanent bishop, when the time comes – to know that we are an engaged, informed and active laity that will not allow any future leaders of our diocese to pick up where Malone left off.”
O’Connor said she planned to continue standing with abuse survivors, and is convinced the faithful of Buffalo will accept nothing less than “effective, transparent and pastoral leadership” for their diocese. “We are also seeking to hold accountable those diocesan leaders who enabled and supported Bishop Malone, and the bishops before him,” she said.
“We know that there is much to be done, accountability to demand, changes to be made, and vigilance to be kept,” O’Connor said. “Over and above it all. I am praying that the next Bishop of Buffalo will be a man of integrity and intelligence, compassion and courage.”
Bishop Scharfenberger, meanwhile, says he plans to spend one day a week in Buffalo until Pope Francis appoints a successor to Bishop Malone. Basically, he is a placeholder. Getting a successor in place is likely to take months, at least, even if filling the vacancy in Buffalo takes priority over the 18 either vacant or superannuated sees in the United States.