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Buffalo Catholic Diocese reacting with caution, anticipation to reported Malone resignation

File Photo

A mix of caution and anticipation is how many are reacting to a report suggesting Bishop Richard Malone will resign Wednesday as the leader of the Catholic Diocese of Buffalo. Malone has come under intense criticism for his handling of a clergy sex abuse scandal and a new chapter appears near.

Rocco Palmo, a journalist who has covered the Vatican for numerous agencies, stated in his blog Whispers in the Loggia Monday that, according to sources, Malone's resignation would be announced Wednesday.

Siobhan O'Connor, Bishop Malone's former executive assistant, is among those who have been hoping and praying for a change in diocesan leadership. But she's also approaching the latest report with caution.

"Somehow this does seem to have a certain legitimacy to it," she said. "I do feel that there has been a sense, from sources I've spoken with in Rome, that now the hierarchy is feeling that the Diocese of Buffalo is becoming an embarrassment."

O'Connor was still a part of the diocesan staff in February 2018 when Michael Whalen stood on a street corner opposite the diocesan headquarters at Main and Goodell Streets. On that spot, Whalen revealed he had been abused during his youth by Father Norbert Orsolits. The priest later confessed to the Buffalo News he had abused numerous boys many years ago.

Little did Whalen know on that day that coming forward would trigger what Bishop Malone would later describe as a "tsunami" of complaints. As more accusers emerged, so too did calls for Malone's resignation amidst criticism for his handling of the diocesan clergy abuse crisis. The sharpest criticism was for what many say has been a lack of transparency and only a limited disclosure of the number of past cases, many of which date back decades.

"He could have come forward and said 'yes, we understand this happened' and opened the files and been truthful, and given us all the answers and transparency. But he didn't," said Whalen. "Because of it, I think it brought this on. People here in the Catholic Diocese of Buffalo, they'd seen him for what he was, and this was eventually was going to happen."

Whalen told WBFO he holds no ill will toward Malone but stated "he dug his own grave."

The Diocese of Buffalo stated Monday it would not comment about Palmo's report. Bishop Malone previously insisted he would remain in charge of the Diocese of Buffalo to see it through the crisis.

"Once again, if I thought that if the majority of Catholic people in particular we're calling for my resignation, that would be a different story," Malone said during a September news conference. "But I don't feel that. I go out to parishes and schools all the time for visits. I am always well-received where I go. Who knows what people's thoughts are sitting in the pews that they don't articulate? But I do feel enough support, honestly, to continue on."

Also not commenting is the Diocese of Albany, from where Malone's interim replacement is said to be coming. According to Palmo, Bishop Edward Scharfenberger of Albany has been selected as an apostolic administrator who will serve until a permanent replacement is found and installed.

"There has been no announcement from the Holy See regarding the Diocese of Buffalo. Unless and until the Holy See makes an announcement, we cannot offer any comment,” said a spokesperson for the Albany Diocese.

Scharfenberger leads a diocese whose former bishop had also come under fire for clergy sex abuse claims, though the current bishop has not been implicated in any wrongdoing.

Palmo's post came nearly three weeks after British journalist Christopher Lamb of The Tablet reported, citing his own unnamed sources, that Bishop Malone's resignation was "imminent."

"If you look at his prediction, really, even though it was not on target as far as the actual timing, you could say three weeks later is somewhat imminent as well," said Father Paul Seil, Pastor of St. Bernadette's Parish in Orchard Park and a Chaplain to the Buffalo Fire Department. "He did give us a good indication. But I think the current reports from Rocco Palmo are extremely reliable and I don't think he would publish that unless he had the best and most solid of sources."

Lamb, back on November 13, noted that processes within the Vatican can often take time.

Credit File Photo / WBFO News
Siobhan O'Connor (right) embraces Michael Whalen in February 2019, on the day the latter attended his first Mass in 40 years. One year prior, Whalen's public revelation of childhood sexual abuse by a priest triggered a wave of complaints against clergy within the Diocese of Buffalo and calls for Bishop Malone's resignation.

O'Connor and Father Seil both noted symbolism in the timing of Bishop Malone's reported pending resignation or retirement. The latest report was issued one day after the first Sunday of Advent, which marks a new Church year.

"Advent is the season of waiting and hoping and preparation, and certainly a change in leadership here in our diocese would be an early Christmas present for all of us, and a sign that God sometimes does make us wait but that He always does have us in the palm of His hand," O'Connor said.

Father Seil also noted that this time of year brings the longest darkness but in the longest nights of Advent, "we saw a light break."

For the many priests like Seil who were not involved in any sexual misconduct, being associated with the Church has often been a test of their own spirits. Seil told WBFO one of his close priestly friends was verbally accosted while out on errands by a stranger. He was asked how the many more good priests have been able to cope as allegations against their peers have emerged.

"We stick together. We talk," he replied. "We try to share some lighter moments and we also try to share some positive reinforcement that we receive from members of the laity."

Earlier this year, on the first anniversary of his abuse revelation, Whalen attended his first Mass in 40 years. He admits he has not returned since but wants to, calling his Catholic faith a "beautiful religion." He believes he will very soon have the strength to go back again, and is confident that if new diocesan leadership is more open about the past, the Church may enjoy significant healing. 

In the short term, his wish was for everyone to enjoy a Merry Christmas.

"It's about family. It's about the togetherness and Christmas miracles. Let's see if we can do that and save this diocese and the Church," he said. "I honestly believe in my heart that we can do this."

Michael Mroziak is an experienced, award-winning reporter whose career includes work in broadcast and print media. When he joined the WBFO news staff in April 2015, it was a return to both the radio station and to Horizons Plaza.
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