Buffalo bishop preached transparency. Secret recordings made by a whistleblower suggest a different agenda

Bishop Malone is facing criticism from another insider-turned-whistleblower.

September 4, 2019, 7:14 AM

Bishop Richard Malone, the embattled spiritual leader of the Diocese of Buffalo, is back on the defensive after a second whistleblower came forward on Wednesday, armed with hours of secret recordings that show the bishop navigating what he called “a true crisis situation” for his administration.

Those recordings, made by Malone’s then-secretary and diocesan vice chancellor Fr. Ryszard Biernat and obtained by ABC News, suggest that Malone sought to conceal from public view allegations against a priest he considered “sick,” even as he responded to widespread criticism of his handling of sexual misconduct allegations against clergy in the diocese with promises of greater transparency.

Bishop Malone's handling of allegations of sexual abuse by clergy was detailed in a special edition of Nightline in July.

In an exclusive interview with Charlie Specht, an investigative reporter for ABC’s Buffalo affiliate WKBW, Biernat said his decision to first record and then betray Malone was driven by a sense of loyalty – to the people of Buffalo, if not its bishop.

“I am here to serve the people of Western New York the way I can,” said Biernat, who agreed to take a leave of absence from the diocese in August and has until recently lived in the bishop’s official residence. “I feel I have a responsibility to come forward and ask Bishop Malone to please resign. For the love of God and for the sake of your people here, please resign.”

After the publication of this report, Rep. Brian Higgins, a Democrat from New York whose district includes Buffalo, reiterated his earlier calls for Bishop Malone’s resignation.

“Western New York Catholics have been hurt by decades of lies and coverups,” Higgins said in a statement provided to ABC News. “Bishop Malone and his public relations team have said again and again that the problems pre-date Bishop Malone’s tenure. These recordings are conclusive evidence that the coverup continues to this day. … Bishop Malone is clearly not the right person to lead this Diocese forward.”

On the recordings, which span from March to August, Malone and his advisers can be heard discussing allegations against Fr. Jeffrey Nowak, who until recently served as pastor of Our Lady Help of Christians in the Buffalo suburb of Cheektowaga. Nowak was placed on administrative leave by Bishop Malone in August pending the completion of an investigation of complaints received by the Diocese of Buffalo earlier this year.

In response to questions from ABC News, the Diocese of Buffalo reiterated that Bishop Malone has no plans to resign and issued a statement defending its handling of the allegations against Nowak.

“The diocese had never received – and still has not received – any allegation that Fr. Nowak ever engaged in sexual contact with anyone, child or adult,” the statement reads. “While the diocese did receive allegations of questionable behavior – behavior which was concerning enough to Bishop Malone that he felt Fr. Nowak needed a professional assessment – the diocese was and is aware of no behavior that threatened harm to the public.”

PHOTO: Bishop Richard Malone was appointed Bishop of Buffalo, N.Y. in 2012.
Bishop Richard Malone was appointed Bishop of Buffalo, N.Y. in 2012.
ABC News

In a previous interview with ABC News, Malone largely defended his leadership amid the crisis but offered one major mea culpa, telling correspondent David Wright that he had made “mistakes” in his handling of allegations of sexual misconduct against clergy made by adults.

“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, bring the priest in, send him for assessment, discipline him, sometimes with the hope that he could be restored to some partial ministry,” Malone told ABC News. “But I see it's the wrong way to do it. And we have not done that since then.”

But in Malone’s handling of allegations made against Nowak, which he received prior to his interview with ABC News, Malone appears to have reverted to that same playbook.

In January, a then-seminarian at Buffalo’s Christ the King Seminary named Matthew Bojanowski wrote a letter to Bishop Malone alleging that Nowak, Bojanowski’s former confessor, had “used information obtained from within the seal of confessional to my detriment” and “was so bold as to make unwelcomed [sic] advances on me,” including sending a message in which Nowak referred to Bojanowski’s potential as “clerical eye candy.”

After Bojanowski rebuffed those advances, he wrote, Nowak retaliated against him, allegedly searching through personal items in Bojanowski’s apartment and circulating a snapshot of a letter between Bojanowski and Biernat, who are close friends, in an apparent attempt to suggest a sexual relationship between them, which both Bojanowski and Biernat deny. When reached by ABC News, Nowak declined to comment.

But even as the Diocese of Buffalo opened an inquiry into the allegations, Bishop Malone allowed Nowak to remain in ministry, prompting Biernat to start recording.

“When I saw how they were dealing with another seminarian coming forward, I thought, 'I need to do something,’” Biernat told WKBW. “So I started recording those meetings because they say one thing but they do nothing.”

PHOTO: Fr. Ryszard Biernat recently served as Bishop Richard Malone's secretary and the diocesan vice chancellor.
Fr. Ryszard Biernat recently served as Bishop Richard Malone's secretary and the diocesan vice chancellor.

In a pair of secretly recorded meetings with his advisers in March, Malone called the allegations a “serious matter,” one that raised “frightening concerns” about Nowak’s alleged aptitude for manipulation.

“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,” Malone said in March. “And I think he's a sick puppy.”

By March, the recordings show, Malone had confronted Nowak with the allegations and decided to send him away for “assessment” and possibly treatment at St. Luke Institute in Maryland, which describes itself as “an independent, international Catholic education and treatment center dedicated to healthy life and ministry for priests, deacons, and religious” that boasts that “75 percent of [their] residential clients return to ministry.”

But despite Malone’s acknowledgment that Nowak had “serious issues,” Nowak remained in ministry in Cheektowaga without any notification to parishioners that he was under investigation. It wasn’t until May, after WKBW published documents showing that Nowak was under scrutiny for multiple allegations of sexual harassment, that the Diocese of Buffalo publicly acknowledged that a “preliminary inquiry” into Nowak’s conduct had been opened.

The situation intensified in August, when a local media outlet questioned the Diocese of Buffalo about the letter between Bojanowski and Biernat. In Biernat’s final recording, a fearful Malone can be heard making a desperate appeal to Biernat, encouraging him to discuss the letter in a television interview with a reporter but urging him — over and over again — to do so without mentioning its connections to Nowak’s alleged misconduct.

In discussing the potential harm Nowak could cause the church, Malone called Nowak “dangerous,” claimed that “Jeff’s out to get us all” and asked Biernat if he would be able to “stay away from the Jeff thing with the media,” referring to the entire sordid tale as “a can of worms,” an “atom bomb,” and “a disaster” that had sparked a full-blown existential crisis inside the chancery.

“Everyone in the office is convinced this could be the end for me as bishop,” Malone told Biernat. “It could force me to resign if in fact they make a story.”

PHOTO: The Diocese of Buffalo has faced widespread criticism for its handling of sexual abuse allegations against its clergy.
The Diocese of Buffalo has faced widespread criticism for its handling of sexual abuse allegations against its clergy.
ABC News

Malone sought to assure Biernat that whatever leniency had been afforded Nowak would not continue.

“Jeff has agreed by the way to go to Southdown, just so you know,” Malone said, an apparent reference to Southdown Institute in Toronto, another church-allied treatment center that offers psychological services to clergy members. “Cause I told him it's that or leave of absence. So that's settled. Just so you know. … I wasn't gonna tolerate it any longer.”

And Malone warned Biernat that full public disclosure would result in no small amount of collateral damage.

“It's not gonna be any good,” Malone said, “for you, for Matthew, for the church or for me.”

Ultimately, Nowak remained in ministry until August, several months after the Diocese of Buffalo received its first complaints about him. According to the diocese, Bishop Malone placed Nowak on administrative leave after he “twice refused to undergo the behavioral assessment that Bishop Malone had directed him to pursue.” The diocese asserted, in its statement, that they were slow to discipline Nowak because they feared the disclosure of the letter.

“While much of the delay can be attributed to the complexity of the allegations and the unwillingness of some involved to cooperate fully,” the statement reads, “the truth is that Bishop Malone was also hoping to prevent the public scandal that could well arise from publication of the letter written by Fr. Ryszard.”

But Barry Covert, a Buffalo-based attorney who represents both Biernat and Bojanowski, called that explanation into question.

“The diocese was told that an active priest was stalking, retaliating against, taking various immoral measures against a seminarian,” Covert told ABC News. “Once again, they did nothing to protect parishioners from someone who Bishop Malone clearly felt was an abusive priest.”

For Biernat, the future is unclear. He told WKBW that he is hoping for change. He hopes Malone will step down. He hopes the Vatican will intervene. He hopes the FBI will investigate.

In the meantime, Biernat said, one major change has already been made: “I can't be quiet anymore," he said.

ABC News’ Halley Freger contributed to this report.