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‘Hard to know’ if Buffalo Catholic Diocese will recover

Lindsay Lazarski / WHYY

Nazareth College history professor Timothy Thibodeau, who studies the Catholic Church, says it is hard to know what long-term effects the resignation of Bishop Richard Malone will have on the Buffalo Catholic Diocese. Thibodeau says some Catholics will leave the church in disgust over Malone’s alleged cover-up of sexual misconduct by priests, but others will wait to see who replaces Malone and what reforms are put in place.

The Vatican ended weeks of speculation Wednesday when it announced that Pope Francis had accepted Malone’s resignation after widespread criticism from the former bishop’s staff, priests, and the public over how he handled allegations of clergy sexual abuse.

“It’s not a surprise,” Thibodeau said of the resignation. “I think what’s surprising to me is why it took so long.”

Pressure on Malone to step down was intense.

In the past year, two key members of Malone’s staff went public with concerns about his leadership, including his former secretary, the Rev. Ryszard Biernat, who secretly recorded Malone calling a then-active priest “a sick puppy,” but taking no immediate action to remove him.

Earlier, his executive assistant, Siobhan O’Connor, had leaked internal church documents after becoming concerned that Malone had intentionally omitted dozens of names from a publicly released list of priests with credible allegations of abuse.

A diocesan priest, meanwhile, circulated a “no confidence” letter for signatures.

Thibodeau says any meaningful reform will have to include significantly more laypeople.

The Buffalo diocese has been named in more than 220 recent lawsuits by people who allege they were sexually abused by priests. Many of the allegations date back decades, long before Malone’s arrival in Buffalo in 2012.

But critics say there have been more recent missteps by Malone, including his decision to return to ministry a priest who had been suspended by a previous bishop for including “love you” in a Facebook message to an eighth-grade boy.

Malone later endorsed the same priest for a job as a cruise ship chaplain, even after he was also accused of making unwanted advances toward young men.

Malone has admitted to making mistakes in cases involving adult victims. But he had firmly refused to resign and insisted he wanted to stay on the job to see the diocese through a process of “renewal.”

The Vatican hasn’t released the results of the inquiry into Buffalo that was conducted by Brooklyn Bishop Nicholas DiMarzio. Malone said he had been made aware of the “general conclusions” of the report and that they had been a factor in his decision to seek early retirement.

DiMarzio himself was recently accused of sexually abusing an altar boy in the 1970s when he was a parish priest in Jersey City, New Jersey.

“You pull on one thread with this, and the next thing you know, you’re looking at all kinds of dots that are being connected across the country where the investigator is now being investigated,” said Thibodeau. “That’s quite shocking.”

An attorney for the alleged victim announced last month that he is preparing a lawsuit on behalf of the man. DiMarzio has denied the accusation.

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