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BUFFALO, N.Y. (ChurchMilitant.com) - The apostolic administrator of Buffalo is pledging a new start for the diocese, hours after the Vatican confirmed the resignation of embattled Bp. Richard Malone.
Speaking at a press conference on Wednesday, Albany Bp. Edward Scharfenberger said he recognized that Buffalo Catholics have been "suffering quite a bit in recent months and years," and vowed that under his administration, victims of clerical sex abuse will be "treated with respect," with "openness of conversation, particularly with those who are suffering the most" his number one priority.
"We can't be afraid of reality," he said. "We have to look at things with sober eyes and look at the damage that was done."
As part of his declared commitment to transparency, the bishop promised to upgrade diocesan processes surrounding clerical sex abuse "if there's a need to change some of them."
Scharfenberger said another top priority is augmenting the health of Buffalo's parishes. He described diocesan institutions and services as essential, but reaffirmed that the ultimate "health of the diocese is in our parishes."
"We here at the Catholic Center primarily are here to serve the parishes, and there is nobody that feels the brunt of all the pain that we've been through ... all these years and these months more than our people in the parishes," he observed.
Scharfenberger said he would do his utmost to connect with Buffalo's parishes, to reach out to Catholics "who are hurting" and to restore trust among members of the diocese.
Malone's resignation was confirmed Wednesday morning by officials in Rome. For the past two years, the bishop clung to power in spite of growing anger over his mishandling of clerical sex abuse, culminating in calls from multiple high-ranking diocesan officials for him to step down.
In September, a poll found that 86% of Buffalo Catholics thought Malone should resign over his pattern of cover-up. Still, he refused, claiming: "Believe it or not, I get every week more positive mail — it sounds like I'm making this up, I'm not — than I do negative mail."
The bishop's abdication came just days after he returned from an ad limina visit to Rome, where he met with Pope Francis. Even then, he denied his impending resignation and suggested that Pope Francis' sympathies lay with him.
"In a few words spoken privately to me, it was clear that the Pope understands the difficulties and distress we here in Buffalo, and I personally, have been experiencing," he said in a video statement. "He was very understanding and kind."
Though Buffalo Catholics are cheering Malone's departure, they recognize the future of their diocese remains in question.
On Wednesday, a local reporter asked Scharfenberger about the status of Malone's auxiliary, Bp. Edward M. Grosz.
"There's no change," Scharfenberger replied, explaining that he is not Malone's replacement, but merely a temporary administrator of the diocese. He added:
Nothing changes, basically. Now, when I say nothing changes, that doesn't mean that I do not have the authority to make changes that absolutely must be made ... The changing of an auxiliary bishop is not the first priority. Bishop Ed has told me that he's willing to continue to serve ... .
Bishop Scharfenberger added that Vatican officials will likely seek his counsel on who Buffalo's future episcopal leaders should be.
In September, Fr. Ryszard Biernat, Malone's former priest secretary, accused Grosz of blackmailing him into silence after he notified the chancery that he had been sexually assaulted by diocesan priest, Fr. Art Smith.
"He said [it] was my fault because I [didn't] lock the door," Biernat recounted. "'You should have locked the door. And was Fr. Art Smith drunk, because if he was maybe he did not know what he was doing?'"
After blaming him for his own abuse, Biernat said, Grosz threatened to block his ordination.
"And then he said, 'and Ryszard, if you don't stop talking about this, you will not become a priest. You understand me? You understand me?'" said Biernat.
Buffalo investigative reporter Charlie Specht, whose team was responsible for first exposing Malone's corruption, questioned Scharfenberger on the decision to retain Grosz:
A lot of Catholics have been reaching out to us and saying that they're surprised at that, that some of the filing cabinets in this very building have shown that in the last 40 years, the auxiliary bishop's handwriting was literally on many of these cover-ups that have gone on here. How can people have faith and trust that the diocese under your administration is charting a new course, when part of the old guard is still in place?
Scharfenberger appeared surprised by Specht's information. "That's a very good question ... I did not know that, uh, what you just told me is the facts," he said.
"I've read a lot of different things, and if that can be established, and if that proves to be something that would make it difficult for Bp. Grosz or any other priest in the diocese to perform their role then that would be something I would take into consideration," he added.
Asked whether Malone would have any future role in Buffalo, Scharfenberger replied:
The bishop emeritus, the former bishop of the diocese is a member, basically, of the clergy of that diocese and the bishop emeritus ... would serve at the pleasure of the bishop of the diocese, or in my case, the apostolic administrator. So, it's a decision I will have to make ... whether or not it's appropriate ... for Bp. Malone to remain in the diocese, to serve in the diocese in what capacity.
Scharfenberger also said he recognized the threat of bankruptcy looming over Buffalo, with some 200 sex abuse complaints currently before the diocese.
"Bankruptcy is a spector," he said, acknowledging "the effects this will have on the lawsuits ... the ability of victims to pursue justice, which I'm very sensitive to."
"But I will also hear from professionals who understand the process and whether [bankruptcy] is appropriate, which may well be. That will be a decision that will be made as quickly as possible," Scharfenberger added.
The bishop was asked to comment on Vatican-appointed investigator Bp. Nicholas DiMarzio's report on the situation in Buffalo.
He replied that he has not read the report, but has spoken with DiMarzio and has an idea of the "major factors" identified in the report, including a flagging ability "to continue the governance of the diocese ... disaffection among the clergy and some members of the diocese ... about the need for healing."
Scharfenberger also thanked the press for exposing the corruption in the diocese.
"I'm very thankful for the members of the press that are here. I highly respect what you do as professionals, and I thank you for the work you have done," he said. "I think in many ways, we would not be where we are today ... without the work that you do."