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Cardinal Dolan considering options over scandal-hit Buffalo diocese

Cardinal Dolan (Getty)

The cardinal has been 'consulting extensively' regarding his duties as metropolitan as the crisis over Bishop Malone deepens

The Catholic Herald has learned that the Archdiocese of New York is closely monitoring the crisis in the Diocese of Buffalo, and that broad consultations are ongoing, with a view to possible action.

The embattled Bishop of Buffalo, Richard J. Malone, faced several new calls for his resignation last week and over the weekend, including one from a group — the Movement to Restore Trust — that had previously sought to work with the bishop, and an editorial published Saturday by The Buffalo News. Rank-and-file clergy and faithful have also begun writing letters calling on Malone to step down, and forwarding them to local news outlets for publication.

Bishop Malone inherited a diocese with serious cultural and disciplinary problems in the chancery and throughout the clergy. Though Malone defends his record of leadership, two whistle-blowers highly placed within his office have brought evidence before the public reasonably purporting to show serious failures and lapses in judgment with regard to several cases involving both minors and adults, as well as evidence Malone participated in efforts to keep information potentially damaging to his reputation from reaching the public.

Bishop Malone admits he has made mistakes, but steadfastly denies criminal wrongdoing. The clergy and faithful of Buffalo grow daily more impatient with their appointed leader.

The director of communications for the Archdiocese of New York, Joseph Zwilling, told the Catholic Herald, “[The Archbishop of New York,] Cardinal [Timothy] Dolan, is very aware of his responsibilities as Metropolitan under Vos estis [lux mundi],” the reform law Pope Francis enacted this past spring to streamline ecclesiastical investigations into clerical abuse and remove obstacles to investigations of abuse coverup.

“[Cardinal Dolan] has been following the situation very closely, and has been consulting extensively,” Zwilling also said in response to email queries from The Catholic Herald at the weekend. “I would anticipate that we will hear something within the near future regarding this matter,” he concluded.

Last summer’s revelations from whistle-blower Siobhan O’Connor involved diocesan records showing highly questionable handling of several abuse cases, and came with accusations of unresponsiveness from Bishop Malone and his auxiliary, Bishop Edward M. Grosz.

Last week, a cleric who served as Bishop Malone’s priest-secretary for six years shared secret audio recordings with Buffalo’s ABC affiliate, WKBW. In those recordings, Bishop Malone may be heard expressing concern over details of one particularly salacious case. That case involves three principal individuals: one certainly troubled priest, Fr Jeffrey Nowak; another man who was until recently in priestly formation at the Buffalo diocese’s Christ the King Seminary, Mr Matthew Bojanowski; and, the priest-secretary himself, Fr Ryszard Biernat.

The details of the case are indeed “convoluted” — that’s the word Bishop Malone used to describe it at a press conference last week — but the essence of the business is that Fr Nowak took a shine to seminarian Bojanowski and became jealous of Fr Biernat when Bojanowski and Biernat began seeing more of one another. Eventually, Nowak surreptitiously photographed correspondence from Biernat to Bojanowski and allegedly used — or attempted to use — the contents of the letter to blackmail Biernat and Bojanowski, after Bojanowski accused Nowak of harassment and violation of the seal of confession.

Fr Biernat insists there was nothing the Catholic Church considers immoral in his relationship with Bojanowksi, and told The Buffalo News their relationship was “a good, holy friendship”, but the letter and other details regarding the case — Biernat and Bojanowski reportedly own property together — may be fairly construed as something very different. Bishop Malone may be heard expressing concern that the story — if it reaches the public — could erode his standing with the community beyond hope of recovery.

Mr Bojanowski resigned from Christ the King Seminary earlier this year, and Fr Biernat late last month began a personal leave of absence at Bishop Malone’s invitation. Malone put Fr Nowak on administrative leave in early August, several months after he became aware of the allegations against the troubled priest, whom he described in the recordings as “a sick puppy”. The Diocese of Buffalo announced Malone’s action against Nowak one day after a WKBW news report regarding the case and Malone’s handling of it.

Meanwhile, Bishop Malone is standing fast.

In response to email queries from The Catholic Herald on Sunday evening, the communications director for the Diocese of Buffalo, Kathy Spangler, said Bishop Malone is still determined not to resign. Spangler also said Malone is unaware of consultations regarding possible canonical proceedings against either himself or the diocese. The Herald asked Bishop Malone whether he would resign in order to avoid an investigation under the provisions of Vos estis. “No,” Spangler said. “He would fully cooperate,” she added.

Asked whether there are any circumstances beside the manifest loss of the confidence of his clergy, under which Bishop Malone would consider resigning, Spangler responded, “Ultimately it’s up to the Holy Father.”

The Catholic Herald has described Pope Francis’s reform law, Vos estis lux mundi, as potentially a powerful tool in the hands of churchmen willing to use it. The law, however, only very recently came into force, and remains largely untested. There are few — if any — precedents on which to rely, when it comes to putting the new law into practice. Several procedural questions remain unanswered, including ones regarding how to activate the law and who may activate it, because the law is basically untried.

Archbishop Charles Scicluna told The Catholic Herald he believes a Metropolitan “could” decide to open an investigation on the basis of facts — for example news reports — that had become notorious. Archbishop Scicluna was answering a technical query regarding the law itself. He was not speaking to the circumstances that obtain in Buffalo specifically, or any other specific case. An experienced sex crimes investigator who helped draft significant reform legislation under Pope Benedict XVI and spearheaded Church efforts under Francis to uncover systemic abuse in Chile last year, Archbishop Scicluna currently leads the Church in Malta and also serves as adjunct secretary to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, which handles abuse cases and is chiefly responsible for overseeing coverup investigations under Vos estis, He also told the Herald that the CDF or another dicastery with a fair claim to responsibility, such as the Congregation for Bishops, could order an investigation on the basis of news reports.

It is important to specify that “could” does not mean “must”, and those responsible for using the law will want to be sure their use of it is reasonably in line with the legislator’s intent. The situation in Buffalo is further complicated by an open civil lawsuit against the diocese, brought under New York’s Racketeer-Influenced and Corrupt Organisations (RICO) law, which is designed to help authorities break organised criminal enterprises. Church authorities in both New York and Rome may be hesitant to take any action that could be seen as interfering in legal action underway in the secular sphere.