Buffalo, N.Y., Bishop Richard Malone stepped down this week after coming under fire for poorly handling allegations of sexual misconduct by clergy in the diocese.
The Vatican and Pope Francis accepted Malone’s resignation, which came after calls from his staff, priests and the public for Malone to step down. Edward Scharfenberger, the bishop of Albany, will be taking over the position as apostolic administrator until the diocese finds a permanent replacement.
The mandatory retirement age for bishops is 75, and Malone said he had decided to retire two years early after much prayer and “honest reflection.” The Vatican embassy to the U.S. said Malone only decided to resign after he learned the results of the Vatican-mandated investigation into child sexual abuse within the Diocese of Buffalo that began in October.
In a statement, Malone wrote that the diocese needs healing and reconciliation, and acknowledged that another bishop would be more apt to facilitate it.
“The spiritual welfare of the people of the Diocese of Buffalo will be better served by a new bishop who perhaps is better able to bring about the reconciliation, healing and renewal that is so needed,” he wrote.
Scharfenberger will be taking the apostolic administrator position while maintaining his role as the bishop of Albany. He said he plans to visit the eight-county Buffalo Diocese weekly. During a press conference, he said he wants to help develop trust and transparency in the diocese still reeling from the abuse that occurred.
“I feel a little bit like the neighbor down the block,” he said. “And I realize that this family has been suffering quite a bit in recent months and years. And my heart just goes out you. And what I see is a need for a tremendous amount of healing … honest conversation, openness.”
The Diocese of Buffalo is named in more than 220 recent lawsuits by those who say they were sexually abused by clergy. It is the most-sued diocese in the state. Malone took the position as bishop in 2012. Many of the allegations date back to long before he began, but Malone’s more recent cover-ups and complacency have landed him under fire. One of the incidents included Malone returning a priest to ministry who had been suspended by a previous bishop for including “love you” in a Facebook message to an eighth-grade boy.
That same priest also faced allegations of sexual misconduct from other young men, but Malone endorsed him for a job as a cruise ship chaplain anyway.
Malone’s own staff had been pressuring him to resign.
In September, a relationship between Malone’s then-secretary Rev. Ryszard Biernat and then-seminarian Matthew Bojanowski came to light when a letter from Biernat to Bojanowski was made public. Both Biernat and Bojanowski maintain that their relationship was nothing more than friendship, but Bojanowski had come forward saying another priest, Rev. Jeffrey Nowak, had abused him. Bojanowski resigned from seminary because of Malone’s inaction in the case. Eventually, Biernat had began recording his conversations with Malone about Nowak. In one, Malone called Nowak a “sick puppy” but did not take immediate action to remove him. Malone eventually removed Nowak. He asked Biernat to take a leave of absence for recording the conversations and sharing them with the media.
Before that, Malone’s executive assistant Siobhan O’Connor leaked internal documents after she became concerned that Malone had omitted the names of a handful of priests from a public list of clergy with credible allegations against them.
A diocesan priest circulated a “no confidence” letter for signatures. In September, The Movement to Restore Trust, a group of laypeople tasked with working with Malone to help mend Buffalo Catholics’ confidence in the institution, instead called for him to resign in late November.
The results of the October Vatican-mandated investigation, led by Brooklyn Bishop Nicholas DiMarzio, have yet to be released, but Malone said he was told about the “general conclusions” of the report. DiMarzio interviewed 80 people over the course of several as part of the investigation. However, DiMarzio also faces allegations of abuse himself.
Scharfenberger also said he has not seen the report but that he had a general understanding of its conclusions.
In April, Malone suspended three priests who younger seminarians said the older priests subjected them to disturbing and offensive sexual conversations during a party.
The Buffalo Diocese has paid over $18 million to more than 100 victims under a compensation program established last year. Over the summer, New York opened a yearlong “look-back window” that serves to suspend the statute of limitations for sexual abuse claims, allowing adult victims to file suit.
Related Story: New York Child Victims Act ‘Look-Back Window’ Begins, Allowing Adult Survivors to File Civil Suits
As a result, the Buffalo Diocese and other dioceses across the state have been named in a deluge of new child sexual abuse lawsuits.
The Catholic Church worldwide is experiencing the same reckoning, as priests and bishops are resigning or being forced to resign. Last year, Pope Francis asked every active bishop in Chile to tender his resignation amid charges of sexual abuse and cover-ups. He has accepted less than a dozen so far but is expected to accept more.
Malone said he intends to serve as Bishop Emeritus, an honorary title given to retired bishops, but Scharfenberger said he had not yet made a decision regarding whether Malone should continue to work in the diocese in any capacity.
“I’ll be in conversation with him, as well as with the Holy See, as to see what role, if any, would be appropriate for him in the diocese. And if not, where else,” Scharfenberger said.
Zach Hiner, the executive director of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP), released a statement saying the group welcomed Malone’s departure but told USA Today the Vatican should have fired Malone instead of allowing him to resign.