"I want to go into detail," said Astridge, who said that he was abused by a priest from the ages of seven to 11. "I want to tell you what this guy did to me."
Getting to the "root" of the problem in the diocese will mean tackling two decades of alleged mismanagement and cover-up, laid out by the Attorney General's recent lawsuit.
The state's suit claims that diocesan "investigations" into clergy abuse accusations often consisted of auxiliary bishop Edward Grosz making phone calls to accused priests, and that from around 2011 until 2019, diocesan lawyers conducted investigations despite apparently clear conflicts of interest.
Priests found "credibly accused" of abuse were quietly removed from ministry without the faithful being informed as to why, with records noting priests simply as "retired," on "medical leave," or on "sabbatical." In some cases, the diocese recommended the accused priests for ministry elsewhere "despite documented knowledge" to the contrary, according to the state AG.
The lawsuit detailed that Malone, who took office in 2012, took five years to make a single referral to the Vatican of a priest credibly accused of abuse, and allowed Fr. Art Smith to remain in active ministry despite several accusations of inappropriate touching of young men.
The state also claims that the bishop worked with lawyers to trim down the diocese's list of priests "credibly accused" of abuse, a list released to the public in March of 2018 as an act of transparency.
The diocese has also faced criticism for its treatment of whistleblowers, compared to its treatment of credibly accused priests.
While the diocese removed credibly accused priests from active ministry over the years, it still provided them financial assistance and benefits-as required by canon law. However, as the attorney general's report pointed out, if the accused had been found guilty by a Vatican trial and laicized, the diocese-and by extension the lay faithful who donated their money to parish collections-would not have had to provide for their livelihood.
Meanwhile, according to multiple reports, Fr. Ryszard Biernat-Bishop Malone's former secretary-is working a job to provide for himself, as he is not receiving benefits from the diocese and has been removed from active ministry for a year.
In September, 2019, Biernat leaked audio to the press which appeared to show Bishop Malone admitting the credibility of accusations made against a diocesan priest, months before that priest was removed from active ministry.
In one of his last acts as bishop in Dec. 2019, Malone suspended Biernat and forbade him from celebrating the sacraments. Despite Scharfenberger's wishes to "do whatever I can to find a place for [Biernat] in priestly ministry," the priest was never reinstated.
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There are also questions about just how aware the Vatican is to the gravity of the scandal in the diocese.
The Vatican ordered an apostolic visitation of the diocese in 2019 while Malone was bishop, conducted by Bishop Nicholas DiMarzio of Brooklyn. The scope and conclusions of the visitation have not been made public.
Scharfenberger, Malone's temporary successor in Buffalo, also said he had not seen the results of the investigation when he took control of the diocese in January. Fisher, at his introductory press conference on Tuesday, said he had also not seen the results of the investigation.
Fisher said that Pope Francis' representative in the U.S., Apostolic Nuncio Archbishop Christophe Pierre, did not bring up the scandals in the diocese when officially asking him to accept the appointment to Buffalo. Facing a faithful with high expectations for change and accountability, as well as legal battles on all fronts, Bishop Fisher will likely find that local Catholics want to talk of little else.
Matt Hadro was the political editor at Catholic News Agency through October 2021. He previously worked as CNA senior D.C. correspondent and as a press secretary for U.S. Congressman Chris Smith.