'What are they waiting for?': Whistleblowers look to Vatican as embattled Buffalo bishop clings to power

PHOTO: Pope Francis delivers his Easter blessing from the central balcony of St Peters Basilica on April 21, 2019, in Vatican City, Vatican.PlayGiulio Origlia/Getty Images, FILE
WATCH Bishop Richard Malone of Buffalo defends his handling of sexual abuse crisis

A pair of whistleblowers are calling for the Vatican to act amid a growing scandal surrounding Bishop Richard Malone of the Diocese of Buffalo, who has faced widespread criticism for his handling of allegations of sexual misconduct against clergy.

Interested in Pope Francis?

Add Pope Francis as an interest to stay up to date on the latest Pope Francis news, video, and analysis from ABC News.
Add Interest

The local crisis deepened this week with the emergence of secret audio recordings obtained by ABC News and its local affiliate 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.”

Now two Buffalo whistleblowers (both of whom worked closely with Malone until they turned against him) and a group of prominent local Catholics (that had until recently been one of Malone’s major sources of support) are all looking to Rome for answers.

Siobhan O’Connor, Malone’s former personal secretary who sparked a scandal last year when she leaked internal church documents to investigative reporter Charlie Specht from ABC’s local affiliate WKBW, said Vatican interest in the beleaguered Diocese of Buffalo is “long overdue.”

"What are they waiting for?" O’Connor told ABC News. "Our diocese is suffering because of the severe lack of episcopal leadership from Bishop Malone, which has manifested itself in many ways. I beseech Vatican officials to intervene before our diocese is decimated."

PHOTO: Pope Francis delivers his Easter blessing from the central balcony of St Peters Basilica on April 21, 2019, in Vatican City, Vatican. Giulio Origlia/Getty Images, FILE
Pope Francis delivers his Easter blessing from the central balcony of St Peter's Basilica on April 21, 2019, in Vatican City, Vatican.

Fr. Ryszard Biernat, who until recently lived at the bishop’s residence before coming forward this week with those secret audio recordings, said Malone is unlikely to leave his position of his own accord.

“I hope he steps down. But we had those hopes for a long, long time. He stays,” Biernat told WKBW. “And I'm hoping the Vatican intervenes. I’m hoping that somebody intervenes. Maybe [the] FBI. Somebody, please. We need help. We need help here.”

And The Movement to Restore Trust, a local group of Catholic lay leaders in Buffalo that had previously been a major ally of Malone’s, withdrew its support for him on Thursday and called for immediate resignation, citing “recent events and disclosures.”

“We make this request of Bishop Malone with a degree of humility and sadness,” the group said in a statement, noting that it will be following up with both Cardinal Timothy Dolan, the archbishop of New York, and the Apostolic Nunciature, Pope Francis’ ambassador in the United States.

On Wednesday, Malone responded to this latest scandal, suggesting to a small group of hand-picked reporters that Pope Francis' apparent lack of concern is an endorsement of his leadership.

“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. “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.”

PHOTO: Bishop Richard Malone, Bishop of Buffalo, speaks during a news conference Monday, Nov. 5, 2018, in Cheektowaga, N.Y. Frank Franklin II/AP, FILE
Bishop Richard Malone, Bishop of Buffalo, speaks during a news conference Monday, Nov. 5, 2018, in Cheektowaga, N.Y.

The Catholic Church hierarchy has been strangely silent about Buffalo, even after Pope Francis promised greater transparency and mandated new policies and procedures designed to hold bishops accountable earlier this year.

Neither the Vatican nor the Apostolic Nunciature to the United States have responded to requests for comment from ABC News, aside from pointing out that, under those new policies, the Vatican could direct Cardinal Dolan to investigate Malone. Dolan’s spokesperson told ABC News, however, that no such order has been given.

Vatican officials appear to have taken notice of at least one case that has raised concerns in Buffalo. Following an ABC News investigation detailed in a special edition of Nightline in July, Vatican officials requested information from the Diocese of Buffalo about Bishop Malone's decision to reinstate a Buffalo priest who had faced multiple accusations of sexually abusing minors.

"The Congregation for Bishops asked for a report on the details of a widely publicized case in Buffalo, in which a priest’s allegation of abuse of a minor, after thorough professional investigation and extended review by our Independent Review Board, was found to be unsubstantiated," Buffalo Diocese spokesperson Kathy Spangler told the Catholic Herald.

Spangler did not identify the specific case at the focus of the report, and she declined to provide more information to ABC News, but her description of the case matches that of Fr. Dennis Riter, who has denied the accusations and continues to serve as pastor of St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Church in the Buffalo suburb of Dunkirk.

Fr. Biernat, who served as Bishop Malone’s personal secretary until he agreed to take a leave of absence in August, confirmed that the inquiry concerned Riter.

“There had been an inquiry from the Vatican in August,” Biernat told ABC News. “I know the second in command from the [Apostolic Nunciature to the United States] called Malone in August and he responded by a letter drafted by [diocesan attorney] Lawlor Quinlan.”

PHOTO: Fr. Dennis Riter is currently serving as the pastor of St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Church in Dunkirk, New York. ABC News
Fr. Dennis Riter is currently serving as the pastor of St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Church in Dunkirk, New York.

As the scandal has grown, the state’s civic leaders have also begun to look to church leaders for action.

Sen. Chuck Schumer, a powerful Democrat from New York, addressed the issue during an appearance in Buffalo on Thursday, calling the situation “terrible.”

“I am not a member of this faith, and I’m very respectful of the separation of church and state, so I am reluctant to say what it is they should do,” Schumer said. “But I sincerely hope that the Church — its lay community and its leadership — will handle this issue quickly, effectively, and decisively.”

But as Malone suggested in an interview with ABC News earlier this year, he is answerable to just one person.

“Bishops obey our conscience. We try to do that,” Malone said. “We obey the central teachings of scripture and tradition. Ultimately, we obey the Pope.”

ABC News' Jinsol Jung contributed to this report.