BUFFALO, N.Y. (WKBW) — New York State Attorney General Letitia James on Monday sued the Catholic Diocese of Buffalo and former bishops Richard J. Malone and Edward M. Grosz for failing to protect children and for engaging in a decades-long cover-up of sexual abuse by diocesan priests.
New York’s top prosecutor also filed a motion that seeks to force a full public disclosure of predatory priests and their actions against those whom they were entrusted with spiritual care, and is seeking a court-appointed monitor that would ensure that interim Bishop Edward B. Scharfenberger complies with sexual abuse policies and procedures.
The state is also seeking to bar both Malone and Grosz -- who resigned their positions last year after a Vatican investigation -- from serving in secular fiduciary roles in any nonprofits or charitable organizations in New York State.
“When trust is broken with spiritual leaders, it can lead to a crisis of faith,” James said in a news release. “For years, the Diocese of Buffalo and its leadership failed to protect children from sexual abuse. Instead, they chose to protect the very priests who were credibly accused of these atrocious acts. Individuals who are victims of abuse deserve to have their claims timely investigated and determined, and the Buffalo Diocese refused to give them that chance.”
“While we will never be able to undo the wrongs of the past,” James added, “I can guarantee that my office will do everything in its power to ensure trust, transparency, and accountability moving forward.”
In addition to the lawsuit filed in State Supreme Court in New York County, James’ office appears to have conducted an extensive accounting of the actions taken by not only Malone and Grosz, but by other high-ranking administrators including Msgr. Robert J. Cunningham, who went on to become the Bishop of Syracuse.
James released a 218-page report that includes case studies of actions the diocese took when it learned of credible abuse allegations against more than two dozen priests. Under the Catholic Church’s own rules, those men should have been reported to the Vatican for removal from the priesthood.
“Instead, Diocese leadership granted the priests protection from public disclosure, resulting in the misuse or waste of charitable assets by supporting priests whom the Diocese considered to have committed sexual abuse, and a failure to provide victims with public vindication of their claims,” James said.
In response to the lawsuit, a spokesperson for the Buffalo Diocese said in a statement, "We will be reviewing this lawsuit just announced by the New York Attorney General and weighing the Diocese’s response. In the meantime, we wish to reiterate that there is zero tolerance for sexual abuse of a minor or of sexual harassment of an adult in the Diocese of Buffalo by any member of the clergy, employee or volunteer. The Diocese has put in place rigorous policies and protocols governing required behavior as well as a code of conduct which all clergy are expected to abide by. Moreover, the Diocese has committed to full cooperation with all civil authorities in both the reporting and investigation of alleged crimes and complaints.”
Barbara Underwood, James’ predecessor as attorney general, launched an investigation into the Buffalo Diocese and New York’s seven other Catholic dioceses in 2018, a month after the 7 Eyewitness News I-Team published an investigation that revealed Malone:
- Returned Rev. Art Smith to ministry despite allegations of inappropriate contact with a child.
- Allowed Rev. Robert Yetter to remain in ministry despite multiple allegations of sexual misconduct with young adult parishioners.
- Concealed allegations against more than 60 priests when the diocese released a list of 42 accused priests (the diocese's internal list of clergy with allegations against them exceeded 100 and has now grown to more than 180).
The pressure on Malone intensified in September 2019, when the I-Team published secret audio recordings where Malone attempts to conceal sexual misconduct allegations involving Rev. Jeffrey Nowak. Malone called the priest "dangerous" but allowed him to remain pastor of Our Lady Help of Christians for more than six months with no notification to parishioners.
Both major news investigations were the result of whistleblowers who came forward to speak the truth about Malone's actions: former administrative assistant Siobhan M. O'Connor and former clerical secretary Fr. Ryszard S. Biernat. O'Connor last year said that she was interviewed by members of law enforcement who were probing the diocese.
Malone resigned in December 2019 after a Vatican investigation and Pope Francis accepted Grosz’s resignation this March. The complaint filed by the AG seeks an order requiring compliance with the mandatory policies and procedures by Scharfenberger, the Albany bishop who also serves as apostolic administrator of the Buffalo Diocese.
Because of the way New York's criminal laws are written, few expected the AG to file criminal charges against Buffalo’s high-ranking administrators for failing to protect children. But James' office, while it has criminal jurisdiction only in certain fields, does have jurisdiction of nonprofits under the state's Charities Law and is using that authority to prosecute the Buffalo Diocese in civil court.
It is unclear whether Erie County District Attorney John J. Flynn Jr. will file criminal charges of his own after the AG’s report.
Diocesan decision-makers or clergy, though, could still face criminal charges stemming from an FBI investigation. U.S. Attorney J.P. Kennedy has not confirmed the investigation, but a source previously said a grand jury had been impaneled to hear testimony.