Vatican orders review of Buffalo diocese over handling of abuse allegations

The bishop in Buffalo has been accused of mishandling clerical sex abuse claims.

The Vatican said it's implementing a fact-finding visitation of the Diocese of Buffalo amid widespread criticism of Bishop Richard Malone's handling of allegations of sexual abuse and misconduct against local clergy.

The Apostolic Nunciature in Washington, D.C., the Vatican's U.S. representative, announced on Thursday that its office had authorized Bishop Nicholas DiMarzio of the Diocese of Brooklyn to conduct an "Apostolic Visitation," described as "a fact-finding mission which reports directly to the Holy See, specifically the Congregation for Bishops, to evaluate situations in dioceses."

"This is a difficult period in the life of the Church in Buffalo," DiMarzio said in a statement. "I pledge I will keep an open mind throughout the process and do my best to learn the facts and gain a thorough understanding of the situation in order to fulfill the mandate of this Apostolic Visitation."

The Diocese of Buffalo released a statement welcoming the visitation and pledging its cooperation. The visitation is a non-judicial, non-administrative process.

"Bishop Malone has committed to cooperate fully and stated that this Visitation is for the good of the Church in Buffalo," the statement reads. "The purpose of an apostolic visitation is to assist the diocese and improve the local Church's ability to minister to the people it serves."

The Diocese of Buffalo has been in a state of crisis since last year, when Siobhan O'Connor, Malone's former personal secretary, leaked internal church documents to investigative reporter Charlie Specht from ABC's local station WKBW, sparking months of stories about whether there had been efforts to conceal the extent of the problem from the public.

That crisis deepened in September with the emergence of secret audio recordings obtained by ABC News and by WKBW.

The recordings suggest Malone sought to conceal allegations that an active priest had sexually harassed a then-seminarian, even though Malone can be heard on the tapes describing the accused priest as "a sick puppy" and calling his alleged penchant for manipulation and retaliation "dangerous."

Bishop Malone has since faced widespread calls for his resignation, from both local Catholic and local civic leaders, and he's cited the Vatican's apparent lack of concern in his defense.

"They say the pope frequently picks up the phone and calls people around the world, but I have not been the recipient of one of these calls," Malone said in September. "I've had no communications from the pope at all."

"I know for sure they're not unaware of all the news around here," he continued. "But so far apparently I like to think they are trusting in my goodwill and my intention and my capacity working with other people to lead us further. But if I get a call from the pope, maybe I'll let you know."

In its statement on Thursday, the Diocese of Buffalo acknowledged that an Apostolic Visitation is conducted "on behalf of the pope."

"Heartfelt gratitude," the statement reads, "is expressed to all those who are working so generously on this Visitation."

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