In the deeply Catholic Rust Belt community of Buffalo, New York, some parishioners are using the Sunday collection basket to ask embattled Bishop Richard Malone to resign. Instead of giving money, some faithful are leaving handwritten messages giving the church an ultimatum.
“We will resume our weekly offering when the Bishop resigns or is removed,” read one handwritten note that was placed in a Sunday collection basket and shared with CNN.
The source who provided the notes to CNN asked not to be identified for fear of retaliation. In an email, the diocese said it was aware of a few such notes received months ago.
Malone came under fire after his former executive assistant, Siobhan O’Connor, leaked documents to CNN and other media outlets suggesting the bishop did not sanction priests accused of sexual abuse and concealed the identities of alleged predator priests.
In March, Malone released a list of 42 priests in the Buffalo diocese who had left the priesthood after facing accusations of sexually abusing minors. He has said his handling of some claims has “fallen short of the standard” but has maintained that he will not step down.
“The shepherd does not desert the flock,” Malone said in August.
The New York attorney general has issued civil subpoenas for all eight Catholic dioceses in the state as part of a civil investigation into how the dioceses potentially covered up allegations of the sexual abuse of minors. A New York US Attorney subpoenaed the Buffalo diocese in June, according to diocese spokesperson Kathy Spangler. The US Attorney’s office of the Western District of New York told CNN by phone that the office could not confirm or deny investigations.
Priests join call for bishop’s resignation, source says
In a meeting Malone had with priests Monday, two priests stood up and asked Malone to resign, according to a source who was in attendance.
The gathering was highly choreographed, according to the source, and included a prayer service, and an hour and a half of discussion about Malone’s future as a Bishop. Malone insisted, according to the source, that he would stay on the job.
The diocese confirmed to CNN in an email that two priests asked the Bishop to resign during the gathering; but pointed out that more than 100 priests present supported him.
Buffalo Deacon Paul Snyder was not at the meeting; but tells CNN that he is aware of at least 12 priests who would have liked to ask the bishop to resign but were too afraid to do so.
Church attorneys and at least one armed guard monitored the goings on inside the church during the meeting, the source said, deeming the attorneys and the armed guard as an intimidation tactic to deter priests from speaking out freely.
CNN asked Spangler about the police presence inside the church during the meeting and she said Cheektowaga Police was called to ensure the safety of all those present, given that the meeting was a highly publicized event.
“As part of the police department’s assistance, one uniformed officer was present in the church for part of the meeting,” Spangler wrote in an email.
Priest: Parishioners are ‘leaving in droves’
It’s unclear how many of the 600,000 Catholics in the Buffalo diocese would like for Malone to give up his leadership. But one priest who does not want to be identified, told CNN that attendance at his parish is hurting because of Malone’s refusal to step down.
“My biggest concern is that it will be the slow death of the church if he remains,” he told CNN by phone. “People are leaving in droves.”
“We’ve been wrestling some with our discomfort over supporting the diocese while Bishop Malone remains,” read a handwritten note that was dropped in the Sunday collection basket and was shared with CNN.
“The bishop’s response is that withholding contributions from local parishes hurts the parish who continue their ministries,” wrote Spangler in an email to CNN. “Withholding contributions sadly hurts the parish community directly and immediately.”
In another letter to Malone from a parishioner, obtained by CNN, the parishioner urges him to step down and explains that his or her contributions to the diocese’s $100 million dollar capital campaign called Upon This Rock will be redirected.
“We will honor our pledge by independently contributing to programs supporting Christian values,” read the letter.
According to Spangler, the funds from the Upon This Rock campaign and the donations in Sunday collection baskets are not used for settlements or legal fees associated with the sex abuse crisis.
When CNN asked Spangler if parishioner attendance and donations were down, she said, “There is no recent data on this.”
Bishop rejects calls for resignation
Deacon and church benefactor Paul Snyder went a step further. He asked for reimbursement for his contributions to the Upon This Rock campaign.
“I believe that donations to the Campaign were solicited under false pretenses,” Snyder wrote in a letter to Malone and obtained by CNN.
Snyder says that the documents leaked by O’Connor prove that the diocese knew about the sex abuse allegations by priests at the height of the donation campaign but did not disclose it to donors.
According to the diocese website, Upon This Rock is an initiative designed to reshape the funding of church ministries. CNN’s review of the promotional video on the site revealed that it featured Father Joseph Gatto. According to the Buffalo Diocese, Gatto was placed on administrative leave in September pending an investigation into a complaint that he made “an alleged sexual advance” on an adult.
“Fr. Gatto is on administrative leave which, at this time, is for investigative purposes only,” wrote Spangler in an email to CNN. “It is not a statement of guilt or innocence.”
CNN reached out to Gatto’s church and also emailed him. His auto-reply says that he’s on leave for “health reasons.”
In a press conference Monday, Malone reiterated that he does not plan to step down.
“The Diocese of Buffalo deserves to regain stability,” Malone said. “A resignation does not bring stability… In fact it can exacerbate instability.”