Opinion & Features

‘I expected more’: Why whistleblowers are surprised by the Buffalo inquiry

Bishop Richard Malone (CNS)

When the Vatican announced the new law Vos estis lux mundi, reforming the way the Holy See investigates claims of abuse cover-up, veteran Church-watcher Rocco Palmo summed up the thoughts of observers everywhere in a single tweet: “For all the ink [spilt] and reaction around [the world] over the Pope’s new norms,” he said, “US Catholicism’s litmus test on Vos estis boils down to three words: ‘Buffalo or Bust’.”  

As the Catholic Herald has noted, the Diocese of Buffalo is not only among the most highly publicised trouble spots in the US, but is also a microcosm of a global leadership crisis. In Buffalo, an abusive clerical party was deeply entrenched and operated with a degree of cover, if not outright impunity. The embattled bishop of Buffalo, Richard J Malone, has acknowledged that he “inherited a decades-old horrific problem” when he took the reins in 2012. 

He has faced allegations that he mishandled abuse cases, and has admitted failure to take proper action on some of those that emerged on his watch. He has been accused of treating victims callously and of opaque record-keeping practices that allowed him to claim the abuse problem was far smaller than it really is. He was slow to sanction at least one priest he suspected of serious wrongdoing and believed to be dangerous. 

Bishop Malone and his auxiliary, Bishop Edward Grosz, have also both been accused of applying pressure on priests and seminarians to stay quiet about abuse, though Bishop Malone stands by his record of leadership generally. Bishop Grosz has denied accusations that he threatened to block a whistleblower’s ordination to the priesthood. 

In August, the Catholic Herald suggested that the evidence already before the public regarding the Diocese of Buffalo and Bishop Malone’s governance of it was already more than sufficient to trigger a Vos estis investigation. If the publicly available evidence should fail to trigger a Vos estis investigation, the argument ran, then sufficient evidence simply does not exist, unless it be ironclad proof of criminal guilt – a standard by which there could never be reasonable hope of any churchman ever facing investigation anywhere, for any sort of wrongdoing.  

In early October, the apostolic nunciature to the US announced there would be an apostolic visitation to the Diocese of Buffalo. Described as a “fact-finding mission” and explicitly characterised as a “non-judicial” and “non-administrative” inquest, the investigation and the report of it are also entirely confidential.  

Bishop Nicholas DiMarzio of Brooklyn conducted the apostolic visitation for the Holy See, on instructions from the Congregation for Bishops. No explanation was offered for why New York Cardinal Timothy Dolan did not conduct the investigation. By press time, New York archdiocese had not replied to the Herald’s queries in that regard. No word has come from official channels regarding the specific focus of DiMarzio’s investigation, which the Brooklyn bishop conducted in three trips – seven days total – in which he interviewed nearly 80 people. 

Word is that Bishop DiMarzio wants to have this sewn up in time for the New York bishops’ ad limina visit to Rome in mid-November. The apostolic visitation route was in lieu of a criminal investigation under Pope Francis’s signature reform law, Vos estis lux mun­di, which, at least on paper, is supposed to facilitate and streamline criminal investigations, and render them more transparent.  

“The purpose of an apostolic visitation,” explained a statement from the Diocese of Buffalo at the time Bishop DiMarzio’s commission was announced, “is to assist the diocese and improve the local church’s ability to minister to the people it serves.” Several participants, however, found the involvement of Buffalo diocesan personnel in the process to be a matter of concern. “I was disappointed to say the least,” whistle-blower Fr Robert Zilliox told the Catholic Herald. “I expected more – I expected this to be a legitimate inquiry – but from the moment I got a phone call from a diocesan priest [of Buffalo] asking me to be interviewed, I was alarmed.” He went on to say: “This was supposed to be an independent investigation.”  

Whistleblower Siobhan O’Connor had similar concerns. “I expected it to be an entirely external process,” she told the Catholic Herald. “Thus, I was startled to receive an interview request not from a Brooklyn area code but from the familiar [Buffalo] 716.” O’Connor recognised that Bishop DiMarzio would need assistance with scheduling and logistics. “It does worry me,” she said, “that Diocese of Buffalo leadership had more of a role in the process than I’d expected.” 

Through his spokeswoman, Bishop DiMar­zio declined to comment. Likewise the Diocese of Buffalo. Apostolic Nuncio Archbishop Christophe Pierre was unavailable for comment, and staff at the nunciature told the Herald they had no knowledge of the visitation’s specifics.   

Bishop Malone welcomed the visitation when it was announced, and used his month­ly column in the diocesan paper to tell the faithful his confidence in the process “is enhanced by the appointment of Most Rever­end Nicholas DiMarzio as apostolic visitor”.