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Buffalo diocese: the perfect test case that wasn’t

Bishop Malone: under fire (CNS)

The Vatican has opted for an Apostolic Visitation, rather than a Vos estis investigation. But why?

Pope Francis has decided — for now, at least — not to activate his signature reform law in the case of Bishop Richard Malone of the Diocese of Buffalo in western New York. Instead, the Pope has opted to order the Bishop of Brooklyn, New York, to look into matters in Buffalo. Why the Pope has decided on this course is unclear, but reaction in Buffalo and among Church watchers has been one of perplexity.

Bishop Malone has been under increasingly intense public scrutiny since last summer, when his former administrative assistant blew the whistle on Malone and his chancery. In August of this year, Malone’s priest-secretary took secret recordings of Malone discussing what sounds like a cover-up with senior staff, and gave them to the press. There is already before the public significant material, including documentary evidence, witness accusations, and the aforementioned recordings of the bishop, some of which has been published for more than a year

The news of the Holy Father’s decision came through a communiqué from the Apostolic Nunciature to the US, which explained that Bishop Nicholas DiMarzio of Brooklyn has been given the task of conducting a “non-judicial” and “non-administrative” inquest, which will begin “in the near future”. The communiqué called DiMarzio’s task an “Apostolic Visitation”, but offered no details regarding either its scope or its powers

The announcement from the Apostolic Nunciature did say that Bishop DiMarzio will report to the Congregation for Bishops in Rome. Over the summer, the Catholic Herald discovered that the Congregation for Bishops had taken a quiet interest in the Diocese of Buffalo. That interest specifically regarded one “highly publicised” case, details of which appeared to track with that of Fr Dennis Riter, a priest of the diocese. Bishop Malone restored Riter to ministry despite numerous allegations of abuse and misconduct stretching over more than a quarter-century. Riter protests his innocence and Malone has defended his own conduct in that matter.

The problems in Buffalo, however, stretch far back – to before Bishop Malone came to the diocese in 2012 – and have allegedly continued on Malone’s watch.

Thursday’s communiqué from the Nunciature described the Visitation as a “fact-finding mission”, and explained that the conduct of the mission “requires confidentiality”. Pope Francis’s paper reform, Vos estis lux mundi, specifically and explicitly states that complainants are not bound to keep quiet about their complaints or their involvement in the investigation of them, but Vos estis remains dormant in Buffalo for the time being.

In theory, Apostolic Visitations are broad mandates. They are not, however, criminal investigations. The Catholic Herald asked the Press Office of the Holy See a series of questions late Thursday, regarding the specific terms of Bishop Di Marzio’s mandate, his investigative powers, or why the process requires confidentiality. As of press time, we had received no reply.

Buffalo’s most high profile whistleblower, Bishop Malone’s former administrative assistant, Siobhan O’Connor, wrote on Thursday: “DiMarzio and Malone are equals. They are in the same province and are very familiar with each other.” She went on to say, “There is a natural concern here as to how objectively DiMarzio can investigate a fellow bishop of his own province.”

Last year, there was an Apostolic Visitation of a US see: that of Memphis, Tennessee. Archbishops Wilton Gregory of Atlanta and Bernard Hebda of St Paul-Minneapolis visited Bishop Martin Holley in the early summer of 2018. Widespread discontent among the Memphis presbyterate precipitated that investigation, after which Pope Francis first invited Bishop Holley to step aside and then forcibly removed Holley when he refused to resign.

(Archbishop Hebda, by the way, is currently conducting a Vos estis investigation into the conduct of Bishop Michael Hoeppner, who has been publicly accused of covering up the abuse of a man, who eventually went into formation for the Diaconate.)

The development — an Apostolic Visitation — is in any case one that has taken people in Buffalo and elsewhere by surprise. If it appeared to Church watchers that Buffalo was a paradigm case and an ideal testing ground for Pope Francis’s new reform law, the Vatican has apparently taken a different view. Over the past several weeks, there had been indications to suggest that the issue was one of determining how to activate Vos estis.

One wonders whether the great object of recent deliberations in the halls of ecclesiastical governance was not — for whatever reason — rather how not to activate it.