The Buffalo Abuse Cover-Up Allegations: Will ‘Vos Estis’ Be Applied?

As more scandalous claims continue to emerge there, the Diocese of Buffalo could be poised to become the first U.S. diocese where Pope Francis’ new guidelines regarding allegations of episcopal misconduct are applied.

Questions about Buffalo Bishop Bishop Richard Malone's handling of abuse claims have intensified over the last month, including this week.
Questions about Buffalo Bishop Bishop Richard Malone's handling of abuse claims have intensified over the last month, including this week. (photo: CNA file photo)

In May, Pope Francis promulgated his motu proprio Vos Estis Lux Mundi, detailing a new set of norms on handling sex abuse that included procedures for handling accusations against bishops — and one instance where many are clamoring for a thorough investigation according to these new guidelines is in the case of Bishop Richard Malone of Buffalo, New York.

No allegation of sexual abuse has been made against Bishop Malone, but he has been accused of allowing multiple priests to remain in ministry despite credible abuse allegations against them.

Questions about the Buffalo bishop’s handling of abuse claims have intensified over the last month in the wake of reports about allegations that he failed to take action initially after he was informed of serious allegations of sexual misconduct by Father Jeffrey Nowak.

And on Sept. 4, WKBW investigative reporter Charlie Specht published another damaging report based on a leaked Aug. 2 conversation between Bishop Malone and other senior diocesan officials regarding the allegations against Father Nowak, in which the bishop reportedly commented that the diocese was in a “true crisis situation” because of the possibility that additional damaging information about the priest’s alleged misconduct might be published by local media.

“True crisis,” Bishop Malone continued, according to the WKBW report. “And everyone in the office is convinced this could be the end for me as bishop. It could force me to resign if in fact they make a story.”

The Diocese of Buffalo is also facing a lawsuit from 22 plaintiffs filed Aug. 14, alleging “a pattern of racketeering activity” that enabled and covered up clerical sexual abuse under federal racketeering laws, called RICO statutes, which primarily are used against organized crime like the mafia. Bishop Malone is one of the individual defendants named in the lawsuit, as is his predecessor Bishop Edward Kmiec.

“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 a statement in August 2018, after he was initially accused of covering up sexual abuse and allowing abusive priests to remain in ministry by Siobhan O’Connor, a whistleblower from his office. However, since that time, he has refused to resign despite persistent calls for him to do so.

Vos Estis Lux Mundi laid out a process for investigating bishops accused of coercing someone to engage in sexual activity through violence or threats, abusing vulnerable persons or minors, or possessing child pornography. It also called for an investigation of “actions or omissions intended to interfere with or avoid civil investigations or canonical investigations, whether administrative or penal, against a cleric or a religious,” regarding accusations of covering up the sexual abuses that are specified in the motu proprio.

The Catholic Herald reported Aug. 20 that the Vatican’s Congregation for Bishops is looking into at least one case within the diocese.


Cardinal Dolan Is the Metropolitan

In Vos Estis Lux Mundi, the Pope adopted the “metropolitan model” for investigating abuse claims against bishops. Under that model, a metropolitan archbishop would investigate a suffragan bishop within his province. In the case of an allegation against a metropolitan archbishop himself, the motu proprio stipulates that it should be referred to the province’s senior suffragan bishop for investigation.

The metropolitan archbishop in this case is New York City Cardinal Timothy Dolan. Joe Zwilling, the communications director for the Archdiocese of New York, told the Register on Aug. 23 that, as of that date, “neither the nuncio nor the Holy See have asked, to date, for Cardinal Dolan to take any action regarding Bishop Malone and Buffalo.” 

Zwilling added that Cardinal Dolan has been “following the situation there closely, since, for a year, some thoughtful clergy and lay leaders have been in touch with him about it. He has also benefited from frequent contact with Bishop Malone.”

As metropolitan, Cardinal Dolan will be looking into another prominent accusation against retired Bishop Howard Hubbard of the Diocese of Albany in New York. Hubbard is accused of abusing a 16-year-old boy in the 1990s, an allegation he denies. A lawsuit against him came among hundreds of lawsuits on Aug. 15, when the statute of limitations was lifted for one year on child sex-abuse allegations in the state due to the newly enacted Child Victims Act.

The Diocese of Albany said in a statement that, “in accordance with Pope Francis’ recently updated reporting guidelines (known as Vos Estis), Bishop Scharfenberger has informed the papal nuncio as well as Cardinal Timothy Dolan, who serves as the metropolitan archbishop for the New York Province, of the legal claim against Bishop Hubbard.”

“Both Bishop Hubbard and Bishop Scharfenberger notified Cardinal Dolan of the lawsuit that was brought last week and have pledged full cooperation,” Zwilling told the Register on Aug. 23. “Cardinal Dolan has been in contact with the nuncio, Archbishop Pierre, about the matter and is prepared to proceed, but first wishes to make certain that nothing be done that might hinder or jeopardize any civil legal proceedings that are currently underway.”


Vatican Involvement

Several other accusations against bishops that predate the new guidelines are being investigated directly by the Vatican. Last July, the Diocese of Cheyenne in Wyoming released the results of an investigation into Bishop Emeritus Joseph Hart, announcing that he had been credibly accused of sexually assaulting two boys when he was bishop of Cheyenne in 1978.

The district attorney in Casper, Wyoming, concluded in 2002 that those allegations, made in 1989 and after, had “no evidence” to support them. However, Bishop Steven Biegler of Cheyenne reopened the investigation in December 2017 and with new evidence reached a conclusion in March 2018 that Bishop Hart had sexually abused two boys. Those findings were relayed to the Cheyenne district attorney, and an investigation was opened by the Cheyenne Police Department.

Bishop Biegler sent a report on the case to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) in Rome in May 2018. A spokesperson for the Archdiocese of Denver, the metropolitan archdiocese in this case, told the Register that the case is being handled by the CDF, as it pre-dates the bishops’ June 2019 implementation of the Pope’s motu proprio.

Cheyenne’s police department has recommended criminal charges against Bishop Hart, and he is also facing the outcome of a Vatican penal process, Bishop Biegler confirmed in June.

Additional allegations of sexual abuse have emerged against Bishop Hart since August 2018 that date back to 1980. Four new allegations of sexual abuse by Bishop Hart were most recently brought forward from his time as a priest in Missouri and as bishop of Wyoming.


Other Cases

One case that served as an immediate example of how the metropolitan model in Vos Estis could work was that of Bishop Emeritus Michael Bransfield of the Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston, West Virginia. He was credibly accused of sexual assault and harassment against priests, seminarians and other adults as well as misusing diocesan funds for lavish expenses and cash gifts to high-ranking Church prelates.

The Vatican appointed metropolitan Archbishop William Lori of Baltimore to investigate Bishop Bransfield in September 2018, and Archbishop Lori found the allegations to be credible in June. Bishop Bransfield now faces Vatican restrictions against performing public Masses and living in the diocese. He has also been instructed to “make amends” for his behavior.

Archbishop Lori’s investigation has been held up by some as a successful use of the metropolitan model. However, there were questions about a lack of transparency in the investigation due to the fact that The Washington Post uncovered additional cash gifts from Bishop Bransfield in June that were not initially disclosed in Archbishop Lori’s report to the Vatican, including $10,500 to the archbishop.

Archbishop Lori said in response that the names of senior clerics were cut from the final report because “including them could inadvertently and/or unfairly suggest that in receiving gifts for anniversaries or holidays there were expectations for reciprocity. … No evidence was found to suggest this.” He did apologize for not disclosing those items and said he would return the money he received from Bransfield and donate it to Catholic Charities.

As nationwide investigations into the Church’s handling of sexual-abuse allegations continue, it is unclear how many claims against bishops have been made and are being investigated. Bishop Robert Guglielmone of Charleston, South Carolina, was recently named in a New York lawsuit alleging he abused a young man when he was a pastor in Amityville beginning in 1978. The allegation was initially deemed not to be credible; however, the Vatican has now initiated a full investigation into the case.

Bishop Guglielmone is cooperating with the investigation and maintains his innocence.

Another case that predated the motu proprio is that of New York Auxiliary Bishop John Jenik, who was accused last October of sexual abuse of a minor in 1978. A lay review board found the allegation to be credible, and he has been removed from public ministry pending a Vatican review. Bishop Jenik has fully denied the allegations.

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops did not respond to the Register’s request for comment regarding the exact number of investigations into claims against bishops or how the Vos Estis guidelines are affecting these investigations in the United States.


A Canonist’s Perspective

Ben Nguyen, a canon lawyer and the chancellor for the Diocese of Corpus Christi, Texas, told the Register via email that when a bishop has committed one of the acts of sexual abuse or cover-up listed in the motu proprio, “the Church authority that received the report must transmit it immediately to both the archbishop and the Holy See.”

“If the accusation is against the archbishop himself, it goes to the bishop of the dioceses in that archdiocesan province who is the oldest in appointment,” he explained. “If it concerns a papal legate, such as a papal nuncio, it goes straight to the Vatican’s Secretariat of State. If the archbishop thinks that the report is entirely unfounded, he must inform the papal nuncio of this (Article 10). Otherwise, the archbishop must immediately request from Rome the ability to do a formal investigation.”

Rome then responds within 30 days, Nguyen explained, by assigning either the archbishop or someone else to do a formal investigation. When the investigation is completed, the archbishop “must write a votum, or opinion, on the matter and transmit everything to the Holy See, who then determines whether or not to move forward with a canonical process and, if so, which canonical process to use.”

Nguyen noted that in the case of an accusation against a bishop, “the Holy See can always conduct the investigation and handle the matter directly,” and “as with cases of abuse accusations against priests, if necessary, the Holy See can also implement protective measures, such as temporarily excluding a bishop from ministry in whole or in part, limiting his travel, public appearances, etc., while the investigation is going on.”

He also spoke to the liabilities and difficulties bishops face when investigating accusations of abuse, especially those that involve their fellow bishops.  

“It can be very difficult to balance appropriately the many issues involved,” he emphasized, “including the need to search for the truth, respect and pastoral care for those claiming abuse, the presumption of innocence of the accused, respect for appropriate confidentiality, properly following civil and canonical laws, the public nature of many of these cases, media interest.” He said that this is even more so the case “when it involves the investigation of a bishop, since the ministry of a bishop usually affects a rather large number of people and has far-reaching consequences.” 

He added that “conflicts of interest and possible recusal should always be addressed clearly and early on so as to protect the integrity of the process.”

Nguyen also noted that the motu proprio recognizes the importance of the relationship between canon law and civil law in these matters. Article 19 of the document “recognizes that these canonical norms apply while respecting the civil laws of the place,” he said. “In the U.S., these include respecting the laws concerning things such as mandatory reporting to civil authorities and law enforcement.”

Lauretta Brown is the Register’s Washington-based staff writer.