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Bishop Malone and Buffalo diocese sued by NY AG over clergy abuse

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

The State of New York is suing the Diocese of Buffalo and its former bishops for failing to protect children for clergy sex abuse.

New York’s Attorney General Letitia James filed a lawsuit on Monday in the state’s supreme court against the diocese. The state also named Bishop Emeritus Richard Malone, retired auxiliary Bishop Edward Grosz, and Buffalo’s apostolic administrator, Bishop Edward Scharfenberger of Albany, in the lawsuit.

The state alleges that the diocese, Malone, and Grosz failed to properly investigate claims of clergy sex abuse. The state also claims diocesan leadership did not “refer unassignable priests to the Vatican,” monitor priests with credible accusations, or take necessary action against diocesan priests credibly accused of child sex abuse. Under state laws governing non-profits, the diocese did not act in “good faith” by failing to follow its own procedures on clergy sex abuse.

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The state is seeking a court order for the diocese to comply with its own policies and procedures on clergy sex abuse, and for the appointment of an auditor to investigate the diocese’s compliance. In addition, the state is seeking restitution from Malone and Grosz, and a ban on their serving “a secular fiduciary role in a nonprofit or charitable organization” in the state.

A spokesman for the Diocese of Buffalo told CNA that the diocese “will be reviewing this lawsuit just announced by the New York Attorney General and weighing the Diocese’s response.”

“In the meantime,” the diocese said, “we wish to reiterate that there is zero tolerance for sexual abuse of a minor or of sexual harassment of an adult in the Diocese of Buffalo by any member of the clergy, employee or volunteer.” 

“The Diocese has put in place rigorous policies and protocols governing required behavior as well as a code of conduct which all clergy are expected to abide by. Moreover, the Diocese has committed to full cooperation with all civil authorities in both the reporting and investigation of alleged crimes and complaints.”

In 2018, then-Attorney General Barbara Underwood launched an investigation into the diocese over allegations of clergy sex abuse and the failure to investigate by diocesan leaders.

The office, now under James, said Monday that the two-year investigation had discovered that although “the diocese’s leadership found sexual abuse complaints to be credible, they sheltered the accused priests from public disclosure by deeming them as ‘unassignable,’ and permitted them to retire or go on purported medical leave, rather than face referral to the Vatican for possible removal from the priesthood.”

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The diocese flouted the requirements of the U.S. bishops’ conference in responding to allegations of clergy sex abuse, the state claimed in its lawsuit.

Despite the USCCB implementing standards for responding to clergy sex abuse for dioceses acorss the country through the 2002 Dallas Charter and Complimentary Norms, the diocese “ignored” the charter “[f]or nearly two decades,” the state said.

The diocese did not conduct proper investigations of clergy sex abuse, as directed by the USCCB, and failed to refer more than two dozen priests with substantiated accusations of abuse to the Vatican.

When the diocese’s “mishandling of specific cases was exposed,” the state claims in the suit, it “misled its beneficiaries about its response to sexual abuse allegations and the measures that its leaders had taken to protect the public.”

The Buffalo diocese has been embroiled in scandal since November, 2018, when Bishop Emeritus Richard Malone’s former assistant leaked records reportedly showing that the diocese worked with lawyers to conceal credible abuse allegations from the public.

While the diocese had reported the names of some priests credibly accused of abuse, it had not reported others, the records appeared to show. Bishop Malone denied claims that he had covered up abuse.

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Six months later, Bishop Malone apologized for his handling of the case of Fr. Art Smith, a diocesan priest who faced repeated accusations of abuse and misconduct with minors.

Bishop Malone had written to the Vatican in 2015, in a letter later reported in the press, asking that Fr. Smith be kept in active ministry. He admitted in the same letter that Smith had groomed a young boy, had been accused of inappropriate touching, and refused to stay in a treatment center. Smith was eventually suspended in 2018 after the diocese received a new substantiated allegation of sexual abuse of a minor. 

In August of 2019, the diocese was named in a RICO lawsuit alleging that its handling of clerical sex abuse was akin to that of an organized crime syndicate.

In September, 2019, Bishop Malone’s former secretary leaked audio of conversations where Malone appeared to acknowledge the legitimacy of sexual harassment accusations made against a diocesan priest months before the priest was removed from active ministry.

In Oct., 2019, a Vatican-ordered apostolic visitation of the diocese commenced, and in December, Pope Francis accepted Bishop Malone’s resignation.

The Buffalo diocese filed for bankruptcy in February of this year, after it was named in hundreds of clergy sex abuse lawsuits filed in New York courts.

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