Interim leader of Buffalo Catholic Diocese says "no hidden agendas, no marching orders"
He came to Buffalo saying he'll be doing a lot of listening and learning. Bishop Edward Scharfenberger of Albany met diocesan staff and local news media Wednesday, just hours after the Vatican confirmed the resignation of Bishop Richard Malone.
Scharfenberger used the word "family" numerous times, including when speaking of those who had been victimized in the past, at the hands of clergy.
"We're all hurting in some way, even if it's not personal, as members of families, as friends," the bishop said during his opening remarks inside the Catholic Center on Main Street. "We have to develop a sense of openness and trust, as family members do."
Scharfenberger will lead the Diocese of Buffalo as an apostolic administrator, serving as an interim leader, until a permanent replacement of Bishop Richard Malone is found and installed. Malone's resignation, which he defined in his own written statement as an "early retirement," was confirmed by the Vatican just hours before, ending a chapter in a nearly two-year painful period for Western New York Catholics.
Malone had come under intensifying pressure to resign in response to his handling of the clergy sex abuse crisis, which has resulted in more than 200 lawsuits now pending. Scharfenberger spoke little about Malone's situation, other than noting that while he no longer leads the diocese he is still considered a priest within the Diocese of Buffalo, though it's unknown what role, if any, he would have in the future.
The interim leader, while stating it was only his first day in this added role, would study details of the cases and the people tied to them. He urged the public not to broadly judge priests for the acts of those who now stand accused. When asked if he would consider sweeping changes to diocesan administration, Scharfenberger offered the same thinking.
"One of the things I have to do, before making any sweeps, is first find out whether or not in fact there's cause to do that," he said. "In other words, are we talking about evidence that there has been clear mismanagement? Has there not been accountability? Naturally, that's one the things I'll want to do, before automatically just sweeping people out."
As an apostolic administrator, Scharfenberger is not officially Buffalo's new bishop, but he does have the ability to make decisions. In addition to evaluating personnel and making changes he feels are needed, he may explore and decide whether the diocese files for bankruptcy, something Malone previously stated was an option under consideration.
There's also the matter of drawing people who have left the Church back. This includes those who have been involved in the movement that rallied and called for Bishop Malone's removal. Following the formal news conference, WBFO spoke to the bishop and shared the tales of Michael Whalen and Siobhan O'Connor. Whalen, when he publicly revealed nearly two years ago being abused by a priest in his youth, touched off what became a growing wave of more victims and accusers coming forward. O'Connor, Malone's former executive assistant, had resigned her position in the fall of 2018 and became a prominent whistleblower.
WBFO's question to Bishop Scharfenberger was whether it would be possible to welcome such individuals, and other protesters, to the table to be a part of the healing process.
"Of course! Everybody's invited to the table and the conversation," the bishop replied. "Sure!"
O'Connor, when asked, is all for that.
"I would welcome that opportunity. In fact, I really hope that that might occur," she said. "I've always wanted to be a part of the healing for this diocese, and the fact that some within the diocese have thought of me as an adversary has been a painful reality for me."
Whalen, who previously told WBFO he is eager to return to Church but wants to see it make serious changes, stated that Scharfenberger sounds sincere. But, it will take some effort.
"It's hard to trust again," he said. "It's hard to take him at his word. I hope it's true and we can do it."