An interesting question in the wake of Pope Francis’s reform of reporting law and bishop accountability measures is: who will be first? In the English-speaking world, the Diocese of Buffalo could be the first big test. The veteran Philadelphia-based Church-watcher Rocco Palmo even suggested that the whole business boils down to “Buffalo or bust”.
The Bishop of Buffalo, Richard Malone, has been accused of mishandling several cases on his own watch and failing to deal appropriately with cases he has inherited, involving both the protection of minors and what the new law considers “vulnerable adults”. Bishop Malone and his auxiliary, Bishop Edward Grosz, have also been accused of unresponsiveness and even flagrant disregard for the good of the flock. Both bishops strongly defend their records and deny they have broken any laws. They say they have no intention of resigning.
Charlie Specht, a reporter for the local ABC affiliate, WKBW, has been doggedly pursuing the story out of Buffalo for more than a year. Bishop Malone’s former secretary, Siobhan O’Connor, shared chancery files with Specht and the nationally aired CBS programme, 60 Minutes. State and federal prosecutors are interested in Buffalo. The evidence that has reached the public is more than enough to warrant Church leaders’ taking a closer look.
Nevertheless, not one US bishop has publicly called on Bishop Malone, to account for himself or apologise for any errors, let alone resign. It is more than reasonable to wonder how the bishops will police themselves when they seem unable to offer even the mildest public criticism of each other.
Vos estis lux mundi, the document setting out the new abuse rules, is procedural. On paper, it applies to situations, the facts of which pre-date the law’s coming into force. Archbishop Charles Scicluna, the Church’s leading expert on the legal side of child protection, told the Catholic Herald: “[Vos estis] applies as from June 1, 2019 for the reporting and investigation of misconduct whenever [it] may have happened.” High clerical culture, however, is governed by a set of unwritten rules making it always difficult and often painful for one bishop to take any sort of public issue with another. Looking in a predecessor’s closet is not the done thing, either.
That is true around the world, and especially applicable to US episcopal culture. It remains to be seen whether these new measures will help break the bishops’ thrall to the cultural status quo.
More to the point: can the faithful or the broad public be certain that Pope Francis will follow through on measures designed to open the way toward criminal prosecution of malfeasant bishops, when he has not been willing – apparently – to use the 2016 document “Come una madre amorevole” (“As a loving mother”)? This was the instrument he designed to give him and other Roman dicasteries more wherewithal and greater ease in removing wayward bishops, without having to resort to cumbersome, protracted and expensive criminal proceedings.
The short answer is: they can’t be sure. If the proof of the pudding is in the eating, the hierarchical leadership of the Church had better tuck in soon.