Bishop Malone says he fell short in handling allegations, but won't resign

Buffalo Bishop Richard Malone Credit Patrick McPartland via Wikipedia CC BY SA 30 Buffalo Bishop Richard Malone. | Patrick McPartland via Wikipedia (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Bishop Richard Malone of Buffalo is resisting demands for his resignation after recently published  documents suggest that he mishandled allegations of sexual abuse and misconduct by priests in his diocese.

"My handling of recent claims from some of our parishioners concerning sexual misconduct with adults unquestionably has fallen short of the standard to which you hold us, and to which we hold ourselves," Bishop Malone said in an Aug. 26 statement to members of the diocese.

In hindsight, he said, some allegations "which at the time may have seemed hazy or difficult to substantiate-warranted more firm or swift action."

However, he rejected calls from local Catholics and public officials that he step down, saying, "The shepherd does not desert the flock at a difficult time."

Several of the recently-reported allegations involve boundary violations or sexual misconduct against adults, meaning that the diocese was not required to take action against them in the same way that it would allegations of sexual abuse of minors, under the 2002 Charter for Protection of Children and Young People.

Malone said that while he sought to follow the Charter's requirements, he "may have lost sight of the Charter's spirit, which applies to people of all ages."

The bishop said that he is establishing a task force to review diocesan protocols for dealing with claims of inappropriate behavior involving adults.

"This task force will be comprised of laity, clergy religious, and I will invite an elected official or two," he said.

He also announced the creation of an Office of Professional Responsibility to help enforce the Diocesan Code of Ethics and promised to cooperate with any potential investigations launched by state authorities. Erie County's district attorney has suggested that a criminal investigation of the diocese is being planned.  

Malone's statement came several days after a two-part 7 Eyewitness News investigation, published Aug. 22-23, revealed documents indicating that Malone allowed priests to stay in ministry despite multiple allegations against them.

The investigation focused on two priests whose names were reportedly considered for inclusion on a publicly-released list of credibly accused clergy, but then removed before publication. Both priests were in active ministry at the time of the list's publication in March.

One case involves Fr. Art Smith, who had been suspended from his parish by the previous bishop in 2011, after complaints from parents and school officials that he had shown signs of grooming and stalking students and had inappropriate communications with one male student.

In November 2012, Bishop Malone returned Smith to ministry, as chaplain of a nursing home. There, two young men at the nursing home – ages 19 and 25 – complained of inappropriate touching by Smith. The regional superior of the religious order running the nursing home wrote to Bishop Malone to report the complaints and say that the order was discontinuing Smith's work there.

Documents show that Malone asked Smith to return to a treatment center in Philadelphia, but Smith initially pushed back, refusing to go. Other documents show Malone asking Smith to honor their "gentleman's agreement" requesting that he "refrain from public celebrations of the liturgy or other sacraments and from wearing clerical attire."

In 2015, Malone wrote in a letter to Vatican officials that Smith had groomed a young boy, refused to stay in a treatment center, faced repeated boundary issues, and been accused of inappropriate touching of at least four young men. However, in the same letter, Malone said that "On the basis of his cooperation in regard to regular counseling, I have granted Father Smith faculties to function as a priest in the Diocese of Buffalo."

That same year, the bishop wrote a letter of approval for Smith to serve as a priest on a cruise ship, explicitly clearing him for work with minor children.

In 2017, Malone assigned Smith as a "priest in residence" at a parish. The priest was suspended in 2018, after the diocese said it had received a new substantiated allegation of sexual abuse of a minor.

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A second case reported by 7 Eyewitness News involves Fr. Robert Yetter, who until last week was pastor at St Mary's of Swormville.

At least three young men in 2017-2018 reported sexual advances by Yetter. Internal memos indicate that Yetter acknowledged at least one instance of inappropriate touching.

Auxiliary Bishop Edward Grosz met with Yetter after being informed of the accusations. He discussed sexual harassment with Yetter and referred him for counseling, then wrote that he considered the cases closed.

On Aug. 27, four days after the 7 Eyewitness News report, the diocese announced that it had received a new complaint against Yetter. It said that Bishop Malone had asked for and received his resignation as pastor of St. Mary's and had placed him on administrative leave while an investigation is carried out.  

The 7 Eyewitness News reports include photographs of more than a dozen relevant documents, including chancery memos, emails from diocesan officials, and letters to and from Bishop Malone.

The Buffalo News reported Sept. 3 that the Diocese of Buffalo is still trying to determine who had leaked the confidential documents. The diocesan headquarters is increasing security measures, with new locks, security guards, identification badge requirements, video monitoring and a computer security analysis.

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