NEW YORK – Pope Francis on Wednesday accepted the resignation of Buffalo Bishop Richard Malone following widespread criticism from Malone’s staff, priests and the public over how he handled allegations of clergy sexual misconduct.
The Vatican announced the resignation in a brief statement, adding that Francis had named Edward Scharfenberger, the bishop of Albany, New York, to run the Buffalo Diocese temporarily until a permanent replacement is found.
The Vatican’s embassy to the U.S. said Malone offered to step down two years before the mandatory retirement age of 75 after learning the results of a Vatican-mandated inquiry into the western New York diocese and its handling of abuse cases.
In a statement, Malone said he had come to believe “that the spiritual welfare of the people of the Diocese of Buffalo will be better served by a new bishop who perhaps is better able to bring about the reconciliation, healing and renewal that is so needed.”
The diocese has been named in more than 220 recent lawsuits by people who allege they were sexually abused by priests.
Many of the allegations date back decades, long before Malone’s arrival in Buffalo in 2012. But critics say there have been more recent missteps by Malone, including his decision to return to ministry a priest who had been suspended by a previous bishop for including “love you” in a Facebook message to an eighth-grade boy.
Malone later endorsed the same priest for a job as a cruise ship chaplain, even after he was also accused of making unwanted advances toward young men.
Malone has admitted to making mistakes in cases involving adult victims. But he had firmly refused to resign and insisted he wanted to stay on the job to see the diocese through a process of “renewal.”
Pressure on him to leave was intense.
In the past year, two key members of Malone’s staff have gone public with concerns about his leadership, including his former secretary, the Rev. Ryszard Biernat, who secretly recorded Malone calling a then-active priest “a sick puppy,” but taking no immediate action to remove him.
Earlier, his executive assistant, Siobhan O’Connor, leaked internal church documents after becoming concerned that Malone had intentionally omitted dozens of names from a publicly released list of priests with credible allegations of abuse.
A diocesan priest, meanwhile, circulated a “no confidence” letter for signatures.
And in September, a group of lay Catholics that had been working with Malone to restore trust in the church instead joined in calls for his resignation.
The group, the Movement to Restore Trust, said it received word of Malone’s departure “with a mixture of sadness and relief.”
“There is much work to be done to move our church toward this new day when sexual abuse and misconduct is unthinkable, when victims of sexual abuse achieve a measure of justice and healing from the Church that has wronged them, and when the laity are welcomed as equal participants with the clergy in the task of rebuilding the diocese,” it said.
The Vatican hasn’t released the results of the inquiry into Buffalo that was conducted by Brooklyn Bishop Nicholas DiMarzio.
Malone said he had been made aware of the “general conclusions” of the report and that they had been a factor in his decision to seek early retirement.
“It is my honest assessment that I have accomplished as much as I am able to, and that there remain divisions and wounds that I am unable to bind and heal,” he said.
DiMarzio said he had conducted his investigation with “urgency” at the request of the Holy See, interviewing 80 people over several weeks.
“I pray this moment of suffering and pain will lead to a birth of new faith,” he said.
Among those who called for Malone’s resignation was the former dean of seminarians at the diocese’s Christ the King Seminary. In a letter outlining his decision to withdraw from his studies to become a priest, Stephen Parisi called the diocese’s handing of clerical sexual abuse cases “disgusting and revolting” and raised questions about the institution’s academic practices and oversight.
Malone in April suspended three priests after several seminarians complained the older men subjected them to disturbing and offensive sexual discussions during a party at a rectory.
Scharfenberger, the new apostolic administrator for Buffalo, said he plans to visit the eight-county diocese weekly while keeping up with his duties in Albany.
“I will be doing a lot of listening and learning,” he said in a statement, expressing a desire for openness and transparency.
The Buffalo Diocese has paid out over $18 million to more than 100 victims under a compensation program established last year. Since August, it has been named in a wave of new lawsuits under a New York state law that suspended the usual statute of limitations and opened a one-year window for victims to pursue claims regardless of when the abuse happened.
Attorneys general in several states, including New York, have begun civil investigations into how the Catholic church reviewed and potentially covered up abuse.
Associated Press writer Carolyn Thompson in Buffalo contributed.