Wednesday, December 04, 2019

With Malone Ouster, Buffalo Is Vacant

10.30am – Beginning by saying that "this family is in need of a tremendous amount of healing" following 22 months of crisis, now capped by today's resignation of Bishop Richard Malone, below is on-demand video of this morning's first local appearance of the newly-named apostolic administrator of Western New York, Bishop Ed Scharfenberger of Albany; the Buffalo Chancery press conference extends for over an hour:

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(6.01am ET) And now, it's official – as first reported here on Monday, at Roman Noon this Wednesday the Pope has accepted the resignation of Richard Malone as 14th bishop of Buffalo, and named Bishop Edward Scharfenberger of Albany as apostolic administrator until the 15th bishop takes office.

Both moves have immediate effect.

On a context front, while unnamed allies of the now-departed prelate have misled some Western New York outlets into portraying Malone's ouster as some sort of "early retirement," for clarity, it bears emphasizing that no such arrangement exists in the Catholic Church. Under canon law, a bishop resigns his office for one of two reasons: either upon reaching the age of 75, or otherwise due to ill health or another "grave reason" which has inhibited his ability to effectively govern.

Having become the sixth head of a US diocese to resign over his handling of abuse allegations since his hometown mentor, Cardinal Bernard Law, left the archbishopric of Boston 17 years ago next week, Malone nonetheless holds the title of "bishop emeritus" of Buffalo, and the diocese will remain responsible for his upkeep and living costs. According to the 2010 update to the USCCB norms on resigned or retired US bishops, a bishop emeritus is to receive a stipend of at least $1,900 a month, adjusted higher should the local cost of living index demand it.

Already said to be at his personal home on Cape Cod ahead of today's announcement, the extent of Malone's public role and activity – that is, to the degree that he seeks it – will be decided with his permanent successor, in consultation with the Holy See.

Switching gears, now tasked with beginning to right the ship – and facing tough calls that begin with the likelihood of seeking Chapter 11 bankruptcy amid a crush of over 200 abuse lawsuits, to say nothing of an ongoing FBI investigation into the diocese – Scharfenberger is expected to appear at the Buffalo Chancery this morning to meet with the diocese's staff and, likely, hold a press conference.

While it is not unheard of for a Rome-tapped administrator to figure among the possibilities for the permanent successor, at 71, the Albany prelate is ostensibly beyond the preferable age for Buffalo's next bishop, who will need to provide stability over the mid-range future. At the same time, two names among the handful already cited in church circles as potentially matching the identikit for the post – Bishops Lawrence Persico of Erie and Gregory Hartmayer of Savannah (a Western New York native who joined the Conventual Franciscans) – are respectively 69 and 68.

As ever, more to come.

SVILUPPO (6.50am): Pledging himself to "a lot of listening and learning" in the interim role, Scharfenberger will appear at a 10.30am press conference – livefeed to come.

For his part, meanwhile, in a three-page statement on Rome's announcement of his resignation, Malone continued to mischaracterize his resignation as an "early retirement" while admitting "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.

"It is my honest assessment that I have accomplished as much as I am able to," he said, "and that there remain divisions and wounds that I am unable to bind and heal."

As bishop-emeritus, he said he plans to remain living in the diocese.

For more context and the general state of play, shortly after the announcement, a familiar voice for this crowd showed up on Buffalo's WBEN news-radio:


Monday, December 02, 2019

Dear Buffalo: It’s Over – Capping Year of Scandal, Malone Set To Resign

After a year and a half of crisis and torment for the 570,000 Catholics of Western New York, the wait is over – on Wednesday, the diocese of Buffalo is set to fall vacant upon the resignation of Bishop Richard Malone in the wake of a staggering outbreak of scandals.

The first and most important outcome of October’s Apostolic Visitation of the Buffalo church, four Whispers ops confirm the report first delivered to this scribe early yesterday.

Beyond announcing the Pope’s acceptance of Malone’s resignation at 73, house sources likewise indicate that the Holy See is to name Bishop Edward Scharfenberger of Albany as apostolic administrator of Buffalo until a permanent replacement is installed.

Set to be granted the full faculties of the diocesan bishop for the duration of the vacancy – a significant contrast to an interim leader elected by the local Consultors – the Albany prelate is notably a product of Brooklyn, whose Bishop Nicholas DiMarzio conducted the Buffalo Visitation on Francis’ behalf.

For clarity, while the groundwork is already being prepared under these provisions, it nonetheless remains the case that – however unlikely – anything can change until an announcement is formally made by the Holy See, and no move has any legal effect until that point. Accordingly, in the process of reporting this story, one op relayed that the Wednesday time-frame for Malone's departure was not the initial planned date for it.

At the same time, no indication has been received on the future of Buffalo’s lone auxiliary, Bishop Edward Grosz, whose role in being the first point of contact on abuse allegations has come in for heavy criticism over the last year.

As the focus now turns to the succession, two things bear noting. First, all indications are that the process shouldn’t take too long – as reported here upon the Visitation’s launch, with the vacancy now triggered, the Roman investigation’s report will essentially comprise the opening stage of the search: the required consultation of the diocese’s rank-and-file, which establishes the state and needs of the local church. Beyond that, given the keen awareness in several quarters that the situation has already been dragged out to excess, it’s to be expected that the Buffalo file will be placed ahead of the nation’s 20 other diocesan openings in being processed through the Washington Nunciature and Congregation for Bishops with all possible speed.

Along these lines, as Whispers reported to the page’s stakeholders in their November briefing, with informal conversations on potential Malone successors having been underway in significant circles over the last several months, a rough frame of possible choices is already well in the works.

Beyond the now globally-known festival of misconduct – which, beyond charges of a cover-up of abuse cases, included what Malone himself termed a “love triangle” involving the bishop’s priest secretary, another cleric and a seminarian – as well as the general fury and distrust of the people (which saw 86 percent of locals in a Buffalo News poll call for the embattled prelate's ouster, and Malone's halt to publishing his calendar of public events due to protests at his appearances), the diocese’s financial and legal future have come to loom heavily on the scene, even beyond an ongoing FBI investigation.

Already a defendant in over 200 lawsuits filed under New York State’s one-year “window” suspending the civil statute of limitations, Buffalo is widely perceived as the most likely Empire State see to declare Chapter 11 bankruptcy, following the diocese of Rochester’s filing shortly after the “window” opened in August. According to one internal projection obtained by Whispers, a majority of the New York province’s eight sees could end up following suit as the decades’ worth of litigation piles up over the next nine months.

Lastly, however delayed it might be in the eyes of most observers, Malone’s ouster is likely to satisfy the consensus sentiment of the US bishops, one of whom called the now-departing prelate a “shit-storm” as the Buffalo crisis wore on, while several others have voiced exasperation in asking “What on earth is taking so long?” over the last year.

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All that said, though Malone’s departure has been prematurely heralded elsewhere at various points over these last months, for the purposes of these pages – guided as ever by a sense of process – it was simply impossible for Whispers to report the move until a decision and date were firmly in hand….

And so, here we are.

With thanks to the donors who’ve kept the shop afloat this far, with another process now at hand – and no shortage of other threads on tap, to boot – as ever, these pages only keep coming your way through your support:

SVILUPPO (9pm ET): And now, 15 months since the first alerts on Malone's handling of cases were reported by Buffalo's WKBW, earlier tonight this scribe talked the road ahead with the colleague whose diligent, often thankless work brought Rome to this moment, Charlie Specht:


For Alberto, The "Empire" – Capping Long Transition Plan, Chicago Aux. To San Bernardino

In the space of just four decades, the church in Southern California's "Inland Empire" based in San Bernardino has grown at a nearly unparalleled rate in modern times: today, the two-county diocese's 1.8 million Catholics now comprise a fold as large as Brooklyn, and just slightly smaller than Boston – all told, American Catholicism's sixth-largest outpost, now some seven times its size upon its founding in 1978.

And now, for just the second time since then, San Bernardino is under new management... or will be soon – at Roman Noon, in a surprise pick, the Pope named Bishop Alberto Rojas (above), the 54 year-old auxiliary of Chicago, as coadjutor to Bishop Gerald Barnes. The Mexican-born choice (de Aguascalientes), who came to the US as a seminarian before his ordination in 1997, will succeed Barnes at the mammoth see's helm shortly after the veteran incumbent – who's led the diocese since 1996 – reaches the retirement age of 75 next June.

The culmination of a two-year transition plan charted by the East LA-bred Barnes, his succession has fallen to the only active Hispanic auxiliary in any of the nation's three largest dioceses. In other words, with Rojas' promotion, the only active Latino prelate serving in Los Angeles, New York and Chicago will – at least, for the short-term future – be LA's Archbishop José Gomez, now the USCCB President. While that reality underscores the immense docket-wide challenge of meeting demand for native sons to minister to American Catholicism's de facto rising majority, it's likewise no accident that Rojas – a soft-spoken type whose low profile on the wider scene (until now) belies the affection with which he's regarded both at home and among the bench – has been sent to a charge whose Latin contingent is among the nation's largest, with Hispanics comprising some three-quarters of San Bernardino's faithful.

At the same time, even as the Pope's pick has overseen two of Chicago's six ample-sized regions in turn since his 2011 appointment as an auxiliary to Cardinal Francis George, the incoming Californian nonetheless faces a remarkable change of scale. For one, it's been a decade since a Stateside prelate has been catapulted into a post of this size without experience as a diocesan bishop. Yet what's more, while the now-retired Bishop Rutilio del Riego still lends a hand with Confirmations and other functions, Rojas will have no active auxiliary upon becoming the third bishop. (By contrast, San Bernardino's more established peers in terms of size each have four or more active deputies.)

Home to an unusually collaborative ecclesiology – the fruit of Barnes' lifelong premium on forging consensus (and asking questions) – the Inland church's growth and the unusually public transition planning have combined to leave no shortage of decisions for Rojas upon his ascent. Among others, Barnes has reportedly left to his successor whether the diocese should embark on building a new cathedral given the relative inability of the 700-seat Our Lady of the Rosary (a parish church at the founding) to host major events due to its space limitations amid the ongoing boom. At the same time, though the growth has occasionally led to rumblings that the diocese could be split, with its Riverside County half spun off, that notion is currently on ice amid a prevalent sense that two separate local churches would have difficulties being financially solvent on their own.

On another logistical front, San Bernardino faces the challenge of finding and forming sufficient priestly vocations to serve the growth. Accordingly, it's notable here that the incoming bishop spent nearly a decade on the faculty of Mundelein Seminary, and has taken a lead role on Hispanic vocations as Chicago's lead Latin prelate.

His Welcome Mass reportedly set for mid-February, Rojas will be introduced to his charge-to-be at a 10am Pacific press conference:

While the naming of coadjutors does not impact the US' docket-totals in the immediate sense, as of today, five Stateside dioceses are vacant, with another dozen led by (arch)bishops serving past retirement age. To broad shock, the former count increased yesterday with the sudden death at 59 of Bishop Paul Sirba of Duluth from a cardiac arrest as the Minnesota prelate was preparing for morning Mass in a local parish.

All told, the current pile-up of pending moves is merely a prelude to the "generational wave" set to hit through the next two years, over which time Francis will have a rare ability to recast the American hierarchy as more than 50 diocesan seats – nearly 30 percent of the nation's 179 Latin-church postings – come open due to age-outs and upward movement.