BUFFALO, N.Y. (WKBW) — It’s the morning of Friday, Aug. 2, and Bishop Richard J. Malone hasn’t slept for two nights.
“We are in a true crisis situation,” Malone said. “True crisis. And everyone in the office is convinced this could be the end for me as bishop. It could force me to resign if in fact they make a story…”
Malone is at his sprawling residence on Buffalo’s East Side for a one-on-one meeting with his trusted secretary, Rev. Ryszard Biernat, and the embattled bishop is concerned about a brewing story regarding Christ the King Seminary, allegations of love letters and claims of sexual harassment by a diocesan priest.
“I think we’re gonna blow this story up into something like an atom bomb if we start talking about that. You know?” Malone said to Biernat. “Cause then it sounds like, it sounds like a soap opera. It sounds like a love triangle. And you know what the media can do with that.”
The story Malone was referring to involves Biernat, seminarian Matthew Bojanowski and Rev. Jeffrey Nowak, pastor of Our Lady Help of Christians Church in Cheektowaga. The bishop makes it clear he doesn’t want the full story to get out.
“With all the else that’s going on in the diocese and all the, all the attacks on my credibility...that I’ve known that something’s going on here that shouldn’t be and I let it go...I mean this is a disaster,” Malone said.
When he met with church officials Steve Halter and Kathy Spangler last month, he said even his loyal advisers could feel the walls closing in.
“You know, they really scared me,” Malone told Biernat. “They kept saying, ‘You know this could be the end, bishop. This could be the end.’”
‘More than harassment’
In November 2018, seminarian Matthew Bojanowski said Bishop Malone was first notified of the sexual harassment allegations Bojanowski was making against Nowak. Two years earlier -- while Bojanowski was considering the priesthood -- he said Nowak began sexually pursuing him based on information he told the priest in the confessional.
“After rejecting Father Nowak's advances and harassment, I had to endure many months of revenge and retaliation by Father Nowak, and to other members of clergy, including slander and emotional abuse,” Bojanowski said at a news conference late last month.
Bojanowski followed up with a written complaint and multiple pages of documentation to Bishop Malone in January, according to a certified letter signed by a diocesan official. The bishop huddled with advisers Halter, Rev. Peter Karalus and Rev. Jim Croglio to talk about the allegations.
“Father Jeff Nowak has some serious, serious issues,” Bishop Malone said in an audio recording of the conversation obtained by the 7 Eyewitness News I-Team. “It's very clear that Jeff Nowak had what I think was a very, very unhealthy and inappropriate attachment to this Matt Bojanowski.”
Asked whether Nowak was harassing the seminarian, Karalus replied, “[It’s] more than harassment,” and the bishop said, “It looks to me like he wanted to have [a] relationship, and even intimate relations.”
They refer to Nowak’s Facebook messages to Bojanowski, where Nowak tells him, “when you become a priest, you will be what we call clerical eye candy.”
“Which is pretty sick, I have to say,” Bishop Malone said to his advisers, adding, "there's plenty of evidence" to make a case against Nowak.
Bojanowski said when he turned down Nowak’s advances, the priest became vindictive -- and jealous of his friendship with Biernat, Malone’s secretary.
Malone and his advisers agree that Nowak went so far as to rifle through Bojanowski’s belongings and steal and circulate a letter between Biernat and Bojanowski in an attempt to blackmail them, thought both Biernat and Bojanowski insist the letter was based on friendship.
“So (he’s) a big manipulator, along with the violation of the confessional,” Karalus concluded about Nowak.
“Jeff is broken up over this broken relationship, and he throws in a broken relationship with Ryszard, but he's not broken up over everything else that he's done,” Croglio said. “And he's made an accusation against your secretary. He's insinuated to other priests in the diocese that there's something wrong, and it's all coming from jealousy.”
“Yeah, that's perfectly clear,” Malone said.
“He has no sense of morality about what he has done,” Croglio said.
“Exactly,” Malone adds. “The simple version here is we've got victims and we have a perpetrator, and the perpetrator is Jeff Nowak, and he's done things that are clearly wrong, and I think he's a sick puppy.”
Bishop: ‘He’s a sick puppy’
But sick as Bishop Malone may have thought Father Nowak, he wasn’t sent to a church-run “treatment center” for another five months, during which time he stayed in ministry at Our Lady Help of Christians in Cheektowaga with no notice to parishioners. That inaction is what ultimately led the bishop’s most trusted secretary to go public.
“I thought, 'I need to do something,' so I started recording those meetings because they say one thing but they do nothing,” Biernat said. “And so you have one recording in March then (a) week later, another recording, and nothing is being done.”
Unlike the other 19 priests the diocese suspended in the last year, Nowak was allowed to stay on the job during the investigation -- even though the bishop and his men worried Nowak could hurt other parishioners.
“Anything could happen,” Malone said.
Biernat said, “And you know, what if there's another person coming to (the) confessional like Matthew?”
Karalus said, “preying on…”
“There is a concern about Jeff's emotional stability,” Croglio said. “I mean...It's all about Jeff. It has nothing to do with ministry. It's-- it's his need. And that-- and that's what this whole thing is.”
“Absolutely,” Bishop Malone said.
Croglio also said, "and he is the pastor of a parish, and we don't know emotionally, spiritually, or any other way where his mind is and what he is doing to people."
The men even wondered how Nowak was able to graduate from Christ the King Seminary in 2012 and be ordained a priest in the Buffalo Diocese.
“Again I ask the question, just like we were talking about, ‘How did we get to this point of this person getting through evaluations to be ordained?’” Karalus said.
The bishop wondered the same question.
“How’d he get through?”
Nowak did not respond to multiple requests seeking comment for this story. Bishop Malone issued a statement late Tuesday night where he said Nowak twice refused to undergo a "behavioral assessment" but that "the diocese was and is aware of no behavior that threatened harm to the public."
Priest stayed in ministry
Since last year -- when he was criticized for allowing Rev. Art Smith and Rev. Robert Yetter to remain in ministry despite multiple abuse allegations -- Bishop Malone has pledged to handle the sexual abuse of adults more transparently.
In May, in an interview with ABC News Correspondent David Wright, Malone said, “When it comes to an accusation of an adult being abused, or some kind of misconduct, or harassment, we've tried to handle those things in a quieter way, sent the -- bring the priest in -- send him for assessment, discipline him, sometimes with the hope that he could be restored to some partial ministry,” Malone said. “But I see it's the wrong way to do it. And we have not done that since then.”
But that same month, Bishop Malone kept secret an inquiry about Nowak until 7 Eyewitness News asked about it on May 8. The next day, a diocesan spokeswoman confirmed that "a preliminary inquiry has been initiated concerning allegations of inappropriate behavior/unwanted contact."
Bishop Malone also did not “temporarily remove” Nowak from ministry until Aug. 7, a day after the I-Team published more allegations.
It wasn’t until last week -- 10 months after the original complaint and while 7 Eyewitness News was preparing to publish this story -- that Bishop Malone formally put Nowak on administrative leave.
TIMELINE: Diocese response and I-Team investigation into allegations against Father Nowak
“The damage was done to Matthew,” Biernat said. “The victim...who waited months, for acknowledgement, months for justice. He was re-victimized again, by the church.”
Internal diocese emails show Bishop Malone may have not been fully honest with his own staff.
When more allegations spilled out in April about alleged harassment by Nowak against other seminarians, the bishop in an email told senior staff the allegations “mentioned things that I’d never heard before about him,” despite the taped conversations from a month earlier.
By May 2019, Nowak’s emails show it doesn’t appear the diocese had even pressed him about the allegations. When the I-Team contacted Nowak, the priest wrote an urgent email to the bishop where he said he had “not received any correspondence or even verbal word regarding any of this from diocesan officials.”
“It's not only that they kept it from the people, but Bishop Malone put people in danger in the parish,” Biernat said. “There was no guarantee that he was not going to do to another man in a confessional, the same thing. Bishop (was) referring to him (as) a sick puppy. Why would he allow a sick puppy to minister, to be a pastor of a parish? If this is (what) you call a priest, why do you let him minister and be with vulnerable people?”
While the original recordings were from a staff meeting in March, other recordings obtained by the I-Team show Bishop Malone was intent on concealing the allegations against Father Nowak as recently as a month ago.
On Friday, Aug. 2, Malone was urging Biernat to give an interview to reporters discussing his letter to Bojanowski -- but not to mention anything about the Nowak case and how it was related.
“Cause the story's been about cover-up, about me knowing stuff and not doing anything about it,” Malone told Biernat, according to an audio recording of the conversation. “Don't forget what I'm saying. We can't...please don't get into that on TV. It's not gonna be any good for you, for Matthew, for the church or for me.”
Nowak ‘out to get us all’
The bishop’s former adviser says taken as a whole, the recordings show Malone was living in fear of blackmail -- and what information Nowak might have on other people in the diocese.
“Between you and me -- cause I trust you, I really do...I hope you trust me,” Bishop Malone said to Biernat. “Jeff Nowak is dangerous.”
Biernat told the bishop that he was aware that “there’s a lot of stuff that Jeff has,” including information about a prominent priest who was allegedly having an affair.
“Jeff is...Jeff is dangerous,” Malone said. “Jeff’s out to get us all, let’s face it.”
Malone encouraged Biernat to do a television interview about the controversial letter between him and Bojanowski -- but not to mention any part of the Nowak story.
“I think if we bring Jeff in, that gets very...who knows what he's gonna do,” Malone said. “Even I know he's a loose cannon.”
Barry N. Covert, Biernat’s attorney, dismissed any suggestion that Biernat was speaking out now because the bishop on Aug. 20 placed him on leave for “personal reasons.”
“This is not a revenge for being placed on leave, or he wouldn't have started taping him five months earlier,” Covert said. “It's just the perception that he had that Bishop Malone was not acting in the best interest of the church, the diocese, the parishioners, but only in his own best interest: self-preservation.”
The I-Team has also learned that multiple audio tapes have been reviewed by FBI agents as part of the bureau's criminal investigation into the Diocese of Buffalo, which is ongoing.
Covert added, “Bishop Malone is never worried about the victims. He's never worried about the parishioners. In all three tapes, he is worried about himself, he is worried about his image, he's worried about what retribution can be served upon him. It really is stunning, the implications of what he is saying there.”
AUDIO: Listen to excerpts from the recordings of Bishop Richard Malone obtained by 7 Eyewitness News.
Read abridged transcripts of the recordings: