News Analysis

How long before the Vatican steps into the Buffalo crisis?

Bishop Malone (CNS)

“What are they waiting for?” That was the question with which ABC News headlined its recent report on the ongoing crisis in the Diocese of Buffalo, where Bishop Richard Malone faces growing calls for his resignation.

ABC’s question was directed at higher Church authorities in the US and in Rome, which so far have been hesitant to move against Bishop Malone or the diocese.

The question may have been rhetorical, but it is worthwhile and even necessary to recognise some of the host of legal and political issues any action at any level would raise, both within the Church and the secular sphere.

Last month, the Catholic Herald reported that the Vatican Congregation for Bishops has taken an active interest in Buffalo. Earlier this week, we further reported that broad consultation is underway, directed by the Metropolitan Archbishop of New York, Cardinal Timothy Dolan, with a view to possible action regarding Buffalo diocese and its embattled leader.

The western New York diocese is not only among the most highly publicised trouble spots in the US, but also one that, owing to its particulars, is arguably a microcosm of the global crisis.

For one thing, it involves a diocese in which an abusive clerical party was deeply entrenched and operated, if not with impunity, then at least with a degree of cover: as Bishop Malone has said himsef, when he became bishop of the diocese in 2012 he “inherited a decades-old horrific problem”. He also said that he was “trying to be part of moving us beyond it”, but he has faced many allegations of mishandling abuse cases, and has admitted to failing to take proper action on some of the cases that emerged on his watch.

Bishop Malone has been accused of treating victims callously, of failing to sanction priests who he knew to be potentially dangerous, and of operating a system of record-keeping that allowed him to claim the problem was far smaller than the reality.

Bishop Malone and his long-serving auxiliary, Bishop Edward Grosz, have also been accused of applying pressure on priests and seminarians to stay quiet about abuse.

Bishop Malone, however, strongly defends his overall record and Bishop Grosz has denied that he threatened to block a whistleblower’s ordination to the priesthood.

The latest allegations alone mean that Church leaders cannot postpone action indefinitely. It is also reason for caution. The situation in Buffalo is an opportune testing ground for the new Church law, Vos estis lux mundi, which is ostensibly designed to facilitate reports of abuse and cover-up, and streamline the process of investigating such reports. One problem is that the law remains largely untested, at least in US jurisdictions.

The Buffalo crisis, involving as it does the world’s biggest media market, New York City, is at once an opportunity to allay fears regarding the “Metropolitan system” Pope Francis put in place in June – so called because it makes metropolitan archbishops responsible for conducting investigations into subordinate bishops – and a potential disaster if Church leaders botch it. There is a lot riding on Buffalo, in short, and one can expect Church leaders in the US and in Rome want to have their ducks in a row.

Add to the mix concerns over interfering – or appearing to interfere – in ongoing civil litigation, including a civil claim under the New York state Racketeer-Influenced and Corrupt Oranisations (RICO) law, in which the Diocese of Buffalo is a respondent, as well as more than a hundred other civil claims filed recently under New York’s year-long filing window for claims in which the statute of limitations has expired, and the situation becomes even more explosive.

Bishop Malone has said that only the manifest loss of his presbyterate’s confidence could induce him to resign.

The Vatican could use the threat of investigation under Vos estis to secure wayward bishops’ resignations. An early win in a high-profile case could strengthen its position. On the other hand, simply removing bishops without saying why is highly unlikely to satisfy a body of faithful sorely tried and impatient for a public reckoning. Legal niceties and political calculations aside, this crisis is at bottom one of confidence in Church leadership’s willingness to reform, before it is about how they go about reforming.

On that count, action that is both swift and transparent is almost certainly the only plausible course for Church leaders at every level – from the parish rectory to the halls of the Vatican – and may in any case come too late to avoid disastrous consequences resulting from the involvement of secular power in the ecclesiastical crisis, which is itself largely the result of the hierarchy’s protracted failure to respond effectively.

When it comes to the narrow question of Vos estis, what the Catholic Herald said in May still holds: if the new law is a potentially powerful tool, someone must at some point be willing to take it out of the shed and use it.