'One report of abuse by a member of our clergy is one too many'

Originally released April 11, 2019

The subject of child sexual abuse is one that rightfully has been the focus of intense media attention in recent years. It is a problem that, unfortunately, extends far beyond the Diocese of Buffalo and far beyond the Church. Yet despite the intense media coverage, many of the important facts regarding the scourge of child sexual abuse and the response of the Church and our diocese are either unmentioned or misstated in the news. I write today to correct some of those errors.

Almost all the reported cases of clerical abuse involve conduct that occurred decades ago:

With almost daily media reports, some people might conclude (incorrectly) that the current crisis involves ongoing clergy abuse. That is not true. Since 2003, every diocese in the country has completed an annual audit of the newly reported cases of child abuse, regardless of whether those cases could be investigated or substantiated. In the last audit year, which included a wave of claims that followed the announcement of the Independent Reconciliation and Compensation Program, our diocese received 191 first reports of child abuse, which were more than had been reported in all previous audits combined.  Significantly, not a single one of those new allegations involved an incident that occurred after 2000. All of them reported abuse that occurred decades ago. In fact, there have been only three priests against whom the diocese has received allegations of child sexual abuse that occurred in this century. All three of those priests were removed from ministry, and their cases have been widely publicized. And there have been no substantiated allegations of child sexual abuse against any diocesan priest ordained in the past 30 years.

The policies implemented following the 2002 Charter have worked:

In 2002, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops established a comprehensive set of procedures known as the Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People.  Following the charter, every diocese in the country established a “Safe Environment Program” designed to prevent and respond to any incidents of child sexual abuse and to ensure the safety of children and young people in three ways: (1) by thoroughly screening and supervising all clergy and all employees and volunteers who work with children and young people, (2) by providing appropriate training in recognizing and reporting child abuse to appropriate civil and Church authorities, and (3) by holding all members of the clergy, employees and volunteers who work with children and young people to Christ-centered and professional codes of conduct. These policies have been implemented here and they have worked, as demonstrated by the fact that there have been very few actual cases of child sexual abuse in our diocese since 2002.   
The independent Review Board process works:

In addition to procedures meant to prevent abuse, the charter required every diocese to create procedures for ensuring that cases of past abuse were addressed appropriately. One purpose was to have significant involvement of the laity in decisions about how claims of child sexual abuse were handled. Following the charter, our diocese established an independent Diocesan Review Board, which hears every single report of child sexual abuse received by the diocese. Over the years, the Review Board has included retired judges and prosecutors, physicians, experts in the treatment of child sexual abuse, and other community leaders.  In cases involving living priests, an investigator will be assigned to interview witnesses and collect available evidence and to report to the Review Board. The Review Board may request that additional investigation be conducted. When adequate information has been obtained, the board will make a recommendation to me about whether or not the claim has been substantiated. No priest with a substantiated claim of child sexual abuse can remain in ministry. The Review Board is always willing to consider new claims or new evidence. In some cases, the board has reconsidered decisions made by bishops before the charter, and, based on a new investigation, a priest who had been allowed to remain in ministry was removed.

My decisions about whether a priest is removed from or returned to ministry are often criticized in the media. Of course, the process needs to be confidential to protect the privacy of all the parties involved, and, as a result, the public may not hear all that went into each decision. What I can share is that the diocese is fortunate to have the expertise and collective wisdom of the people who volunteer to serve on the Review Board. I observe their deliberations and can assure you that they recognize the important responsibility with which they are entrusted, and they do not make a recommendation without serious deliberation.

Once a priest has been removed from ministry, the case is to be processed and sent for review by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith at the Vatican. When I first arrived here, I learned that there was a backlog regarding several priests who had been removed from ministry and whose cases had not been sent to Rome. We are making progress in our efforts to correct that situation.       

Our diocese has made significant strides to increase transparency regarding child sexual abuse:

A Buffalo News editorial printed on Jan. 28, 2019, alleged that the diocese has engaged in a “cover-up of the names of the accused [priests].” This is simply not true. To begin, I would note that by publishing names of credibly accused priests, this diocese was doing the very opposite of covering up. Last March, I decided, for the first time in the history of this diocese, to publish a list of diocesan priests with substantiated allegations of child sexual abuse. The list included not only living priests who had been removed from ministry following allegations of abuse, but also deceased priests who had more than one allegation of abuse against them. The list did not include, and did not profess to include, deceased priests who had only one allegation against them if that single allegation was made after the priest had died and the priest could not defend himself.  

As was immediately apparent (and publicly reported) when our initial list was published, we did not include priests who were members of a religious order. Order priests are subject to their own superiors. The religious orders assign their priests to different dioceses, keep their own records regarding the priest’s history and whereabouts, and are responsible for disciplining their priests.  Nevertheless, when we updated the list in November, we included the names of order priests if we were aware of more than one allegation against them.

Our updated list also reflected the numerous new reports of decades-old abuse that we received between March and November, and this resulted in an expanded list.  Despite these revelations, the Buffalo News recently wrote on April 3, 2019, that beyond releasing these names, “Bishop Richard J. Malone has refused to provide more information to the public about the depth and scope of clergy sexual abuse of minors in the diocese.” Again, that statement is demonstrably false.  In November, the diocese held a press conference during which we not only disclosed additional names of priests, but the diocese specifically announced it has received reports of sexual abuse of minors against more than 130 diocesan priests and over 40 religious order priests. The very purpose of making that announcement was to disclose the depth and scope of the allegations received.

To fully appreciate the scope of the abuse crisis among priests, it is important to consider the number of priests who have served in the diocese during the same time period. Since 1950, there have been well over 2,300 clergy assigned to the diocese.  
Of course, a priest’s name is not publicized if the claim has been investigated and determined to be unsubstantiated. Similarly, if a claim cannot be thoroughly investigated because, for example, the priest is deceased, then the priest’s name is not publicized.  If, however, the diocese receives more than one report against such a priest, then he will be added to the list.      

I would note that the criteria I implemented resulted in many more priests being disclosed than if we had applied the criteria used elsewhere.  For example, one television reporter has suggested that if our diocese followed the disclosure policies of the Archdiocese of Boston then our list of priests would be “more comprehensive.” This is false. If we had followed Boston’s policies, far fewer names would have been disclosed. Boston does publicize a deceased diocesan priest’s name if the accuser already has gone public with his or her accusation. It is true that if our diocese followed that policy, there would be about five or six new names added to our list. But Boston does not publicize a deceased priest’s name even if, after he died, he was accused by multiple people if those accusations were made confidentially. Following that rule would result in approximately 16 fewer names on our list.  Additionally, Boston does not publicize the names of any religious order priests. If Buffalo had followed suit, the list released in November would not have included 16 names of order priests.

I say none of this as a criticism of the list prepared by the Archdiocese of Boston. Each diocese has to weigh the important concerns and make a decision that cannot be perfect. Some could argue with good reason that my decision to add the name of a deceased priest who was accused by two people after he died might result in an innocent priest’s name being unjustly tarnished, and it certainly denies him due process. In fact, we have received strenuous and heartfelt complaints from some deceased priests’ families who insist their relatives were wrongly accused. But I decided on the rule to err in favor of transparency.  

I am also mindful of the requests by some for even more transparency. The Movement to Restore Trust has asked me to be more transparent about several issues, including the abuse crisis’s financial impact on the diocese. I have taken those requests to heart, and I intend to be more transparent on a number of those issues as well.

Finally, on the issue of transparency I should note that any claim of child sexual abuse that is recent enough to be prosecuted is immediately reported to the appropriate district attorney pursuant to a memorandum of understanding entered into with the eight district attorneys in our diocese back in 2003. The reporting criteria were set by the district attorneys. As noted above, however, almost all of the reports we receive concern abuse occurring decades ago. In any event, we are providing information about the child sexual abuse allegations received by the diocese since 1950 to the New York State Attorney General’s office.   

Child sexual abuse is a vast problem across our society, and it deserves more attention everywhere it occurs:

Child sexual abuse is a terrible problem around the globe and in our community. According to one review of studies, an estimated 19.7 percent of women and 7.9 percent of men globally experience sexual abuse prior to the age of 18. Another study estimates that in the United States 25 percent of girls and 16 percent of boys experience sexual abuse before they turn 18.  Another paper reviewed six different U.S. studies and concluded that the overall full-childhood sexual abuse prevalence rate in this country was 7.5-11.7 percent.

This horrible crime cuts a wide swath across all areas of our society, and its scope is staggering. Even assuming conservatively that 10 percent of the adult population suffered sexual abuse as a child, then in the eight counties that comprise our diocese approximately 121,000 living adults were sexually abused as children. Most abuse will never be reported because it was perpetrated by family members, family friends or neighbors. Also, because there is no institution associated with those abusers, most of that abuse will never be the subject of a lawsuit or a front-page story. But to forget or to ignore the vast majority of victims of child sexual abuse would be a tragedy.

Some of those 121,000 adults who were abused as children here in the Buffalo Niagara region were abused by priests. One report of abuse by a member of our clergy is one too many, and every Catholic in this diocese, including me, is horrified by each report. But even if the diocese is aware of only half of the total number of people who were abused by priests as children, that total number constitutes only a small fraction of 1 percent of the child sexual abuse that has occurred in this area.

Additionally, last year, the Erie County District Attorney’s office announced the launch of its participation in the “Enough Abuse” campaign and reported that “Erie County has the second highest number of cases of child abuse in New York state with approximately 9,000 cases reported per year.” None of those cases involved priests, but the media still should not ignore those facts. During the past year, some local news sources have provided minimal reporting (others have provided none) on the nationwide “Enough Abuse” campaign, all while providing constant coverage of decades-old clergy sexual abuse cases in Buffalo.  The 9,000 children being abused here every year deserve better, and our community deserves reporting on the full panorama.

I provide this perspective not to minimize the horrific scale of the abuse perpetrated by priests in the past but rather to place it in the context of a wider societal problem of child sexual abuse that deserves more attention from the media and from us all.
Child sexual abuse definitely has received attention from the Church. While the Church in the United States can be faulted for not having done enough in the past to address child sexual abuse, no other institution has done more in recent years to prevent such abuse from occurring.

We need to do more:

For all the progress the Church and this diocese have made in preventing child sexual abuse today and in addressing abuse in the past, I recognize that more needs to be done. Of course, I am acutely aware of the times when I personally have fallen short. I deeply regret and apologize for having signed those letters in support of Father Art Smith. I also regret not being more transparent about claims involving abuse against adults. As you know from the manner in which we have been addressing more recent claims involving conduct between adults, we are handling those matters differently now. Lessons have been learned.

Additionally, I look forward to working with the Movement to Restore Trust and the Leadership Roundtable to improve the way the diocese handles all of these issues. I also would like to thank those of you who came forward and reported abuse that you or a loved one endured. On behalf of the diocese, I apologize to all those who have suffered and continue to suffer as a result of abuse in the past. I also encourage anyone who was abused to contact the diocesan Victim Assistance Coordinator, Jacqueline Joy, at 716-895-3010.  

During this Easter season, we are reminded that being a Christian means becoming a Christian ever anew. That requires repenting and struggling to remake ourselves with humility, prayer and love. I personally need to repent and reform, and it is my hope that this diocese can rebuild itself and learn and even grow from the sins of the past. Let us pray for each other, for the Church and pray for all those who suffered and suffer as a result of abuse as we go forward together to address the worldwide problem of child sexual abuse.

Categories: Bishop Malone