OLEAN — Buffalo Bishop Richard Malone called his listening session last month in Olean “the most powerful” one yet, according to meeting notes from a group of lay people working with the Catholic Diocese of Buffalo.
The embattled Malone spoke to and listened to local parishioners for two hours June 29 at Archbishop Walsh Academy as part of his listening sessions about the diocese’s clergy sexual abuse crisis.
While media was not permitted in the session, the Movement to Restore Trust, an initiative of lay people that is hosting the listening sessions, posted its own notes from the session on its website.
According to the notes, Malone, who has faced widespread calls for his resignation in light of his handling of allegations against clergy, apologized to a mother whose son was abused by a priest, said he could have done better but did not, and promised to continue to change the diocese’s leadership culture.
“Of the four listening sessions I have attended, all designed for me to listen to the parishioners, this is the most powerful,” Malone is quoted as saying.
That might have been because of words from a mother of a clergy abuse victim. According to the notes, the mother said her son was an altar server who was abused by a priest when he was 10.
The son began acting out, refusing to return to church and failing at his school, the mother said. In his teens, he started drinking, then used drugs, and despite multiple attempts at rehabilitation, couldn’t get sober, she continued.
He committed suicide at the age of 34, taking with him the secret of his abuse, the mother said.
The mother’s advice, according to the notes, was to not let the Catholic Church hierarchy get away with the cover-up and protection of sexual predators.
Malone, speaking at the end of the session for approximately 20 minutes, apologized to her.
“From my heart, I want to apologize to the woman whose son was abused,” the notes quote him saying.
Malone also heard from many of the other approximately 70 people in attendance, who were asked to work in groups in order to discuss and summarize thoughts.
Some thoughts, according to the notes, included concerns about the morality of church leaders, as well as concerns that the church does not give parishioners an opportunity to question clergy’s behavior and that there’s a lack of transparency within the church.
Although much of the reported abuse cases happened decades ago, a question was asked about whether the children of today are safe from “predator priests,” according to the notes.
Some parishioners also expressed anxieties about how their monetary contributions are being used. The diocese announced in May it has paid out more than $17 million to 106 victims of clergy sexual abuse as part of its new compensation program, while rejecting the claims of another 135 accusers.
Parishioners at the Olean listening session said they believed victims should be compensated, but don’t want their “hard-earned money to pay for the bishop’s mishandling of those cases,” according to the notes.
There were also plenty of concerns about what the crisis, which has seen the diocese identify approximately 80 priests as being credibly accused of child sex abuse, will do to the future of the church.
Some attendees said the crisis is causing many to leave the church, as well as having a “devastating effect” on Catholic school enrollment.
“This sexual misconduct issue has brought the church to its knees,” an attendee said.
Some suggestions for the diocese and the church at large included more transparency, showing penance by stripping every church altar of ornament for one year, and getting more women involved.
“Women have been relegated to the back room by the church hierarchy for much too long,” an attendee said.
Some attendees also expressed concerns about protecting confidential records from the media. Numerous diocesan internal documents have been leaked to the media over the last year, including some showing the diocese did not identify some accused priests.
Diocese whistleblower Siobhan O’Connor, Malone’s former secretary, leaking documents to WKBW-TV was the subject of an October segment of CBS’ “60 Minutes.”
Some attendees expressed that media coverage over false allegations ruins lives, as some good priests get lumped in with the criminals, according to MRT’s notes. All suspected priests should be considered innocent until proven guilty, attendees said.
When Malone spoke at the end of the session, he said “people who should have been trusted have betrayed their commitment to Jesus,” but that the diocese must continue to be “hopeful.”
Malone said he’s proposed including professional laypeople to review cases of sexual misconduct. He also said seminarians’ preparation has been strengthened, as they undergo a psychological evaluation.
Malone, who has been criticized for either returning or keeping priests in ministry despite misconduct allegations, also admitted to feeling “vulnerable,” according to the notes.
“I continue to ask for forgiveness … I could have done better but did not,” the notes quote him as saying.
Malone has three future listening sessions scheduled next month in Batavia, Orchard Park and Dunkirk, respectively, according to MRT.