The protracted crisis in the US Diocese of Buffalo has piqued Rome’s interest, as many of Buffalo’s 727,000 Catholics have lost confidence in Bishop Richard J Malone’s ability to lead them, and not a few have abandoned the practice of the faith.
Responding to email queries from the Catholic Herald, diocesan communications director Kathy Spangler said the Vatican Congregation for Bishops has begun to take a closer look at the diocese.
“The Congregation for Bishops asked for a report on the details of a widely publicised case in Buffalo, in which a priest’s allegation of abuse of a minor, after thorough professional investigation and extended review by our Independent Review Board, was found to be unsubstantiated,” Spangler said. The priest was returned to ministry.
“The bishop has kept the apostolic nuncio in the US apprised of issues in Buffalo related to the sexual abuse crisis,” Spangler also said, relaying that Bishop Malone has not spoken to Pope Francis directly, or with any dicasteries of the Roman Curia, regarding his leadership.
Citing the confidentiality of Rome’s request, Spangler did not disclose the identity of the priest, about whose case Rome expressed interest. One widely reported story, however, regarded Fr Dennis Riter.
He faced allegations from multiple accusers, and had been on the diocesan radar since 1992, some two decades before Bishop Malone came to the diocese. Bishop Malone engaged Scott F Riordan, a former sex crimes prosecutor now specialising in the defence of clients facing sex crimes allegations, to investigate the matter in early 2018. The bishop eventually restored Fr Riter to active ministry, largely on the basis of Riordan’s report.
In the July 25 episode of the nationally televised ABC News Nightline programme, which reviewed Fr Riter’s case, journalist David Wright asked Bishop Malone whether anyone at the Vatican had contacted him with concerns. “No,” he replied. “Wanting more information?” Wright pressed. “Not at all,” the bishop responded.
That interview was recorded in May, and only aired in late July. The Diocese of Buffalo told the Herald that Rome’s request for details came after Bishop Malone made his remarks to Nightline.
Buffalo is not just one troubled diocese among many in the US and around the world. When the reform legislation ostensibly designed to facilitate and streamline Church investigations of abuse and coverup, Vos estis lux mundi, appeared in mid-May, the Catholic Herald suggested that Buffalo could be a major testing ground for the new legislation.
By the time Vos estis took effect on June 1, we had heard of how Bishop Malone’s former secretary, Siobhan O’Connor, had left her job and shared damning chancery files with reporter Charlie Specht of the ABC network’s Buffalo affiliate, WKBW, and with the nationally aired CBS programme 60 Minutes.
Since then, allegations of morally ambiguous behaviour and serious dysfunction in the diocesan seminary have reached the public. There is a civil action among the scores of lawsuits brought recently in New York state – one of more than 100 reportedly filed against Buffalo alone – claiming that the Diocese of Buffalo civilly breached New York’s racketeering and corrupt organisations (RICO) statute, a law designed to help break organised crime syndicates.
Bishop Malone has strongly denied cover-up allegations, and has defended his leadership record.
Pope Francis has indicated that he prefers to let investigations and legal proceedings in the civil sphere play out before he takes decisive action against a negligent or possibly malfeasant bishop. His apparent reticence to bow to pressure being applied by the secular arm is understandable.
Nevertheless, there is a growing consensus among observers: if the evidence already before the public is not sufficient to trigger an investigation into Buffalo diocese and Bishop Malone’s leadership, then evidence sufficient to trigger an investigation simply does not exist, unless it is absolutely incontrovertible proof of criminal guilt. If that were the standard, almost no Church leader would ever face investigation, anywhere, for any sort of wrongdoing.
Though Vos estis could be a powerful tool for churchmen willing to use it in criminal cases, the first great paper reform Francis introduced was another: Come una madre amorevole (“As a loving mother”), which made it easier for the Pope to remove bishops found negligent in the exercise of their governing responsibilities, even when their negligence was not criminal.
“Most people feel quite helpless about the situation since we know that only the Holy Father can remove a bishop,” whistleblower Siobhan O’Connor told the Herald via email. “Whenever there is a national news story [about Buffalo] people will become hopeful that ‘Maybe someone in Rome will see this’.”
O’Connor said that Roman authorities have yet to reach out to her. “Should they do so,” she said, “I would implore them to intervene within the Diocese of Buffalo to remove Bishop Malone and begin the process of securing a new shepherd for this beleaguered flock.”
“Catholics here are voting with their wallets and, worse, with their feet,” O’Connor continued. “We are hoping that Rome intervenes on our behalf before our diocesan membership is halved.”
By press time, The Press Office of the holy See had not replied to The Herald’s weekend queries in these regards, nor had the Congregation for Bishops, reached Tuesday morning.