Malone suspended priest secretary who leaked chancery tapes

CNA 50a121f578b3d 14938 1 1 Bishop Richard J. Malone formerly of Buffalo, N.Y. (File Photo/CNA).

The day before he left his office, Bishop Richard Malone of Buffalo forbade his former priest secretary from celebrating sacraments, after the priest leaked audio recordings that showed Malone knew about clerical sexual abuse allegations months before he acted on them. Buffalo's temporary leader is now considering reinstating the priest. 

A Dec. 3 document, titled "Decree Imposing A Penal Remedy," is addressed to Fr. Ryszard Biernat, who served as Malone's secretary and vice chancellor of the diocese, until he was placed on leave by the bishop in August 2019.

In September 2019, Biernat took recordings of several conversations with Malone to a local media outlet. In those conversations, Malone acknowledged the legitimacy of accusations of harassment and a violation of the seal of confession made against a diocesan priest, Fr. Jeffrey Nowak, by a seminarian, months before the diocese removed Nowak from active ministry.

In an Aug. 2 conversation, Malone can be heard saying, if the media reported on the Nowak situation, "it could force me to resign."

After Malone's resignation was accepted by Pope Francis on Dec. 4, Bishop Edward Scharfenberger of Albany was appointed by the pope as Apostolic Administrator of the Diocese of Buffalo until a new bishop is named.

On Tuesday, local media in Buffalo reported that Scharfenberger is open to returning Biernat to ministry. 

Scharfenberger told the Buffalo News March 3 "I certainly want to do whatever I can to find a place for [Biernat] in priestly ministry."

Biernat himself was involved in the abuse case he discussed with Malone. The priest said in September that Nowak became jealous of the close friendship between him and the seminarian. 

According to a conversation taped Aug. 2, Malone was concerned that media coverage would focus on the idea of "love triangle" between Nowak, the seminarian, and Biernat.

In the Dec. 3 decree, obtained by the Buffalo News, Malone wrote that Biernat "breach[ed] confidentiality" required by his role as vice chancellor and caused "further scandal" by bringing his concerns about Malone and the Nowak case to the media. 

Malone also noted that he had placed Biernat on leave in August 2019, for writing a "compromising letter" to the seminarian, which "had the potential for causing scandal among the faithful." 

The bishop added that the priest's "time of discernment" had not resulted in "the outcome for which I had hoped" and that he found it "necessary to take stronger measures."

The December decree removed Biernat from his roles as vice chancellor and bishop's secretary, forbade him from saying Mass publicly and revokes his faculties to preach, hear confessions, and minister the sacraments.

Malone also removed Biernat from his position as chaplain to a Carmelite monastery and prohibited him from residing in the bishop's residence in Buffalo.

The decree was signed on December 3, 2019, the day before Pope Francis accepted Malone's resignation, making it one of Malone's last acts as bishop of the diocese. 

It is not clear if Malone imposed the penalties after a required canonical process, in which Biernat would have been able to defend himself, or if the bishop sought instead to issue the decree summarily before he was himself removed from office. 

The decree refers to the apparent punishments variously as "penal remedies," "penal precepts," and "penances," although those terms have distinct meanings in canon law. The permanent deprivation of office, as imposed in the decree, is an "expiatory penalty" in the Code of Canon Law and not a precept or penance.

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In the 18 months prior to his departure from office, Bishop Malone was the subject of successive scandals.

In November 2018, a former Buffalo chancery employee leaked confidential diocesan documents related to the handling of claims of clerical sexual abuse. The documents were widely reported to suggest Malone had covered-up some claims of sexual abuse, an allegation the bishop denied.

Six months later, in April 2019, Malone apologized for his handling of some cases in the diocese, and said he would work to restore trust. The bishop particularly apologized for his 2015 support of Fr. Art Smith, a priest who had faced repeated allegations of abuse and misconduct with minors.

"Lessons have been learned," Malone said in April.

In August 2019, a RICO lawsuit was filed against the diocese and the bishop, alleging that the response of the diocese was comparable to an organized crime syndicate.

The following month, Biernat took recordings he had made of meetings with Malone to WKBW in Buffalo.

Just days after the taped conversations were made public in early September, Biernat revealed that he himself had been abused by a diocesan priest while a seminarian.

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In an interview with local news station WKBW, Biernat said that in 2003, he was sexually assaulted by Fr. Art Smith at a rectory St. Thomas Aquinas parish in Buffalo. When Biernat went to then-auxiliary bishop Edward Grosz with the allegations, Grosz allegedly blamed him for not locking the door, and threatened his vocation if he did not keep silent about it.

Fr. Smith was eventually the subject of a letter from Bishop Malone to Vatican officials in 2015, where Malone asked that he be kept in ministry. In the same letter, Malone admitted that Smith had groomed a young boy, was accused of inappropriate touching of at least four young men, and had refused to stay in a treatment center. Smith was suspended from ministry in 2018 after a new abuse allegation against him was substantiated.

Malone was removed from office when Pope Francis accepted his resignation two years ahead of the canonical retirement age of 75. 

He presented his resignation after the Apostolic Nunciature in Washington, D.C., announced in October that Bishop Nicholas DiMarzio of Brooklyn had been asked to lead an apostolic visitation and canonical inspection of the Buffalo diocese on behalf of the Vatican Congregation for Bishops.

That review concluded at the end of October, with DiMarzio having made three trips to Buffalo, and interviewing more than 80 people before submitting his report to Rome. 

Malone said he had been made aware of the "general conclusions" of the report and the conclusions had factored into his discernment to resign, but that he had done so "freely and voluntarily."

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