The Diocese of Buffalo must now be regarded as the Catholic Church’s Chernobyl. By any measure, the diocese is in full-blown melt-down, and has been obviously—and avoidably—careening in that direction for over a year now.
Last October, Siobhan O’Connor, former executive assistant to Buffalo’s Bishop Richard Malone, went on “60 Minutes” to reveal a long pattern of sexual abuse by priests and cover-up of the same by Malone. She was absolutely devastating, not only in her immaculate mastery of the damning documentation she released, but also in her transparently selfless and humble desire not to seek glory for herself but to root out corruption in a church she obviously loves. Still, sad to say, her efforts have not been effective as the revelations have continued to unfold over the last eleven months, each one, improbably, worse than the one before.
Since late August, when I last wrote about the Buffalo scene, things have gotten even worse. Revelations have continued to pour forth about cover-up of not only past but present abuses, and not just in parishes, but also in the diocesan seminary and chancery. Reports are emerging even this month of yet more abuses which the bishop deliberately chose to ignore, preferring instead to hide behind the huge fence he’s built at the lavish new house he found for himself after reluctantly parting with an even larger mansion. We have seen seminarians resign because of this and openly denounce the seminary and bishop. Now we have no less than the bishop’s secretary reporting he was sexually assaulted by a priest while he was a seminarian, and recording the bishop’s reaction to it on tape. But then it has also quickly emerged that this same secretary was himself involved in a relationship with a seminarian who left the seminary because he was being sexually harassed by another priest.
One needs updates every hour to this evolving cast of characters, as well as a chart showing who is connected to whom to keep it all straight. But amidst it all stands one man whom everybody clearly understands must resign, though he still seems not to have grasped the severity of the situation. That man is, of course, Bishop Richard Malone. Like the Soviet leaders in Ukraine and Moscow in 1986 who, as Chernobyl began to melt down, frantically sought to keep the crisis quiet, Malone and the other bishops are standing around as the disaster unfolds, doing nothing–except hoping nobody blames them.
Malone clearly thinks he can count on the old strategy used by almost all bishops everywhere, until recently: just knuckle down and ride this latest storm out. His brother bishops also hope for such an outcome, believing that if they turn a blind eye to their brother’s failings, he will extend them the same courtesy and business can go on as usual. Perhaps the most significant of these people is Malone’s metropolitan (ie., supposed supervisor, albeit in a very weak sense) in New York City, Timothy Cardinal Dolan. Christopher White of Crux has been in contact with Dolan and the papal nuncio in Washington to confirm that neither they nor anybody else is doing anything about Malone.
Thus, we see that the new provisions for such a scenario as this, put into canon law by Pope Francis in May, are useless as no bishop wants to get the ball rolling. Shortly after this legal change came in a document called “Vos Estis” that was approved by Pope Francis, I argued that these new provisions were worthless because they relied on bishops to police each other. So far, unfortunately, my prediction has been proven entirely correct. Perhaps I was too much like Soviet officials in April 1986, speaking softly after initial reports so as to not upset the locals or attract too much attention and create a panic. Perhaps I was (uncharacteristically) too restrained, too polite, or even too unclear last May.
Since then, I have made presentations across the country on my book, “Everything Hidden Shall Be Revealed: Ridding the Church of Abuses of Sex and Power,” and every time I do so I have discovered time and time again that every group of Catholics of every age and in every region is utterly fed up. These findings need now to be broadcast to bishops, including the bishop of Rome, in the most uncomfortably stentorian tones:
Bishops! None of you has any trust left when it comes to handling sex abuse cases.
Bishops! Nobody trusts anything you say about this crisis.
Bishops! Catholics everywhere are convinced that you all have something to hide.
Bishops! Catholics watch your refusal to do anything about Buffalo and elsewhere (West Virginia, etc.) and conclude you are contemptible cowards covering each other’s backs—not watching out for the welfare of the flock. You are wolves, not shepherds.
Bishops! Until and unless you consider doing what your Australian confreres are doing by holding a plenary council devoted to a complete airing of the crisis in the Church today, and to the planning of inescapable and binding reforms, you can expect no recovery of trust or authority.
Bishops! Until and unless you work to reform structures, restoring the type of synodal accountability in each diocese and for the country as a whole as outlined in my book, where bishops are forced to give an annual accounting to their diocese, and where real regional tribunals can indict and try bishops like Malone, you will all be regarded as part of the problem, not the solution.
Bishops! If you do not care about reform, about restoring trust in your people, and about purifying the Body of Christ, can you at least see your way to acting out of self-interested calculation to avoid your own everlasting damnation (cf. Matt. 18:6)?
A.A.J. DeVille, is an associate professor and the Director of Humanities at the University of Saint Francis, the editor of Logos: A Journal of Eastern Christian Studies, and the author of Everything Hidden Shall Be Revealed: Ridding the Church of Abuses of Sex and Power (Angelico Press, 2019).