News Analysis

Buffalo, Orán, and the challenge for the Church

The US bishops' ad limina meeting (CNS)

Last week’s events in Rome offer a point of focus – Buffalo, New York – from which to pull back and take a broad view of the leadership crisis that has engulfed the Catholic Church worldwide. The question is: where are we?

It is a more difficult question to answer than it might seem at first glance, especially after 2019 opened with the Zanchetta affair. In case you missed it, one of Pope Francis’s first episcopal appointments in 2013, Bishop Gustavo Zanchetta of Orán in the far north of Argentina, was allegedly an abusive tyrant who misbehaved with diocesan money and seminarians.

Francis had heard complaints about Zanchetta’s misbehaviour years before he took him out of the Argentine see he had given him and installed him behind a tailor-made desk in the powerful and troubled Administration of the Patrimony of the Apostolic See (APSA). Bishop Zanchetta was supposedly suspended from his APSA position pending a Vatican investigation, but he attended a retreat with Pope Francis and other high officials of the Roman Curia in March. Then, when Argentine prosecutors put Zanchetta on trial for criminal misbehaviour with seminarians, he produced a letter from Archbishop Edgar Peña, the sostituto for general affairs in the Secretariat of State – roughly the papal chief of staff – saying the Vatican needed Zanchetta to perform his daily duties.

Earlier this month, rioters in Chile looted and desecrated churches when anti-government protests against economic and social policy turned violent. It was in Chile, too, that the ecclesiastical leadership crisis exploded in Francis’s face, when the Pope accused three heroes of the country’s Church reform movement of slandering Bishop Juan Barros, by claiming the bishop turned a blind eye to their abuse by Fernando Karadima (who was dismissed from the clerical state in 2018).

Stunned by the backlash and the intense public scrutiny, Pope Francis promised he would look into the Barros matter. He instructed Archbishop Charles Scicluna, who duly produced a 2,300-page report. Francis summoned the bishops of Chile to Rome for an emergency session that ended with the entire 34-member Chilean episcopal bench submitting their resignations over the scandal. To date, Francis has accepted fewer than a third of them. Meanwhile, prosecutors in Chile have raided chanceries and other Church offices, handed down scores of indictments of clergy and obtained numerous convictions for abuse.

As we went to press, Catholics in Buffalo continued to call for the resignation of their embattled bishop, Richard J Malone. He is accused of gross mismanagement and pastoral carelessness. He defends his record but admits mistakes. Brooklyn’s Bishop Nicholas DiMarzio recently completed an apostolic visitation to the troubled western New York diocese and submitted his report ahead of the New York bishops’ ad limina visit to Rome).

Instead of producing the desired relief, that visit coincided with news that Bishop DiMarzio is himself facing an abuse complaint under New Jersey’s “civil filing” window, set to open next month. He strongly rejects the accusation. Whatever comes from that, the investigation he conducted will not allow Francis to sew up the Buffalo matter neatly and quietly.

Bishop Malone told the Catholic Herald last week that reports that he had submitted his resignation were “absolutely false”. He described his meeting with Francis to Buffalo’s ABC affiliate, WKBW, as “wonderful” and said the Pope had “a very fraternal and pastoral approach to all of us”.

Regarding the ad limina, Bishop Edward Scharfenberger of Albany told the Catholic News Service, “[T]here’s really a feeling that we’ve got one another’s back.” State and federal criminal investigators, meanwhile, continue to probe the Church throughout New York.

A report published at raised serious questions regarding the modes, methods and persons employed in the apostolic visitation, just as the bishops of New York were beginning their visit to Rome. Why the Buffalo inquiry was an apostolic visitation and not a criminal investigation under Pope Francis’s new law, Vos estis lux mundi, is a question no one in a position to know or comment has been willing to address.

Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York might have ordered a preliminary investigation under Vos estis on his own authority, and simply informed Rome he was doing so. Failing that, he might have submitted a formal request to the Congregation for Bishops asking the Congregation to authorise a Vos estis investigation, and let it be known he had done so. One of the advantages of a sweeping and largely untested paper reform is that the ones who test it get to write the book on how it is used. It appears that no one connected with the crisis in Buffalo has been willing to undertake that sort of leadership.

If Pope Francis and the Vatican wish to convince the laity of their commitment to reform, they must prove themselves willing to do the hard and needful things. Local bishops – especially metropolitan archbishops, to whom Vos estis gives great power – must be willing to lead, even when showing true leadership means taking the side of their faithful against Roman inertia.

One simple answer to the question that began this analysis might therefore be: we are in Buffalo, New York – where, as our deadline passed, Bishop Richard J Malone was still in his see, while the faithful were waiting for both credible answers and action worthy of the name.