First, a whistle-blower revealed that Bishop Richard J. Malone of Buffalo kept files about abusive priests that he hid from the public. Then leaked recordings showed him reluctant to remove a parish priest whom he called a “sick puppy.”
On Wednesday, after months of pressure from priests and lay leaders, the Vatican said in a statementthat it had accepted the resignation of Bishop Malone, effective immediately. Since the Vatican did not specify the reasons behind the resignation, it was unclear whether Bishop Malone had been forced to quit.
Among many Catholics in Buffalo, where Bishop Malone was approaching persona non grata status as the scandals continued, there was a palpable sense of relief this week that the Vatican had heard them and was taking a step to restore confidence.
The diocese has seen a steady exodus from the pews and a decline in donations, local Catholics said. A poll conducted by The Buffalo News in September showed that 86 percent of local Catholics wanted Bishop Malone gone.
“For better or worse, he had become the lightning rod for all that was wrong, and we really weren’t going to make any progress toward healing and reconciliation as long as he remained,” said John J. Hurley, the president of Canisius College, who was part of a lay group, the Movement to Restore Trust, that had called for Bishop Malone’s removal. “People are hopeful that we are turning the page and looking forward to a new day.”
But the Buffalo Diocese’s troubles are far from over. It is facing more than 200 child sex abuse lawsuits under the Child Victims Act, and it is under investigation by both the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the New York attorney general for its handling of abusive priests over decades.
The bishop of Albany, Edward B. Scharfenberger, will be the temporary administrator of the diocese, the Vatican said.
In the past few years, Bishop Scharfenberger has gained a reputation for taking a more empathetic approach in his handling of the abuse crisis, and he has called for deeper involvement by the laity to help the church move forward.
Bishop Malone’s resignation was first reported on Monday by Whispers in the Loggia, a blog run by Rocco Palmo, a church analyst.
Perhaps no bishop in America had been buffeted by scandal in the last two years more than Bishop Malone. The Buffalo Diocese, one of the Northeast’s largest, with 600,000 Catholics, had been relatively insulated from the abuse scandals until 2018. Then abuse survivors began speaking publicly, and local media began to investigate, finding that at least some of the accused priests were still in the pulpit.
Responding to pressure, in March 2018 Bishop Malone released a list of 42 priests accused of abuse over decades. But Siobhan O’Connor, who worked in the bishop’s office, had seen 117 names on a draft list in the diocese’s secret files. She began photocopying and then leaking the documents to WKBW, the local ABC affiliate.
The leaks revealed Bishop Malone, who had led the diocese since 2012, as clinical and careful in his dealings with church lawyers about abuse, seeking to limit disclosure of church secrets to minimize their damage.
“We did not remove him from ministry despite full knowledge of the case, and so including him on list might require explanation,” lawyers wrote to Bishop Malone about one priest, accused of having sex with a teenager, who was not included. Bishop Malone decided to leave that priest off.
“People were so frustrated and angry at Bishop Malone that they were losing their faith over it,” said Ms. O’Connor, who left her job and is now an advocate for abuse victims. His resignation, she said “is a sign for people that change can happen.”
In August, secret audio recordings caught Bishop Malone fretting that a scandal involving sexual harassment of a seminarian by a pastor “could be the end of me as bishop.” In a news conference after the recordings aired on television, Bishop Malone said he would not resign. But prominent lay people, including the Movement to Restore Trust, withdrew their support. And some priests began circulating a letter of no confidence.
In October, the Vatican sent Bishop Nicholas DiMarzio of Brooklyn to Buffalo to conduct an investigation. Bishop DiMarzio interviewed about 80 people and submitted a report before flying to Rome, with all the other New York bishops, for a previously scheduled meeting in mid-November with Pope Francis.
While in Rome, Bishop DiMarzio was accused of abusing an 11-year-old boy the 1970s in New Jersey, by a lawyer who said the victim would file a lawsuit. Bishop DiMarzio has categorically denied the accusation.
Rumors of Bishop Malone’s resignation swirled during the Vatican visit, but they were not confirmed. Some in Buffalo wondered whether Bishop Malone, who is 73, would seek to stay on until his mandatory retirement at age 75.
When more solid reports of his resignation emerged Monday night, citing sources, some parishioners began calling their priests to see if it could be true.
“People are elated, finally, that something is going to happen,” said Father Paul Dillon Seil, the pastor of St. Bernadette Church in Orchard Park, N.Y., who started fielding the calls.
“This didn’t start with Malone, and won’t end with his departure,” he added of the abuse crisis in the diocese. “But it’s a great step, hopefully, toward healing, and bringing some Catholics back to the faith family.”
Elian Peltier contributed reporting.