Amid a clergy sex abuse scandal that has engulfed the Catholic Church in the U.S., one name has drawn more controversy than most: Bishop Richard Malone of the Diocese of Buffalo, N.Y. For months, the bishop had resisted calls for his resignation for allegedly mishandling abuse claims against the priests of his diocese.
Malone bowed to that pressure Wednesday.
"Despite the measurable progress we have achieved together, I have concluded after much prayer and discernment that the spiritual welfare of the people of the Diocese of Buffalo will be better served by a new bishop who perhaps is better able to bring about the reconciliation, healing and renewal that is so needed," he said in a statement signed Bishop Emeritus of Buffalo.
"As such, I requested of His Holiness Pope Francis that he permit me to retire early, and he agreed to do so."
The Vatican confirmed Malone's resignation in a brief bulletin posted early Wednesday. The Holy See's press office noted that the pope has appointed Edward Scharfenberger, bishop of nearby Albany, to act as administrator of Malone's former diocese.
By midmorning Wednesday, Scharfenberger's portrait and a statement from the new apostolic administrator welcomed visitors to the Buffalo Diocese website.
The move comes after months of criticism of Malone, whose diocese has drawn the scrutiny of federal investigators and hundreds of litigants.
The FBI had opened an investigation into an alleged cover-up of clergy sexual abuse there, according to local media, which also reported a big discrepancy between the list of accused priests released publicly by the church and its own private records, suggesting a cover-up.
The diocese has also been slapped with scores of lawsuits since New York's Child Victims Act took effect in August. The law vastly extended the statute of limitations for civil lawsuits connected to child sexual abuse — and opened the floodgates for litigation. One law firm alone reported filing more than 100 suits in just more than a month, naming about a dozen priests in Malone's diocese.
In many ways, Buffalo is not unique in this respect. In recent years, dioceses around the U.S. and beyond its borders have attracted litigation from alleged abuse survivors and investigations from authorities.
Last month Pennsylvania signed into law a series of bills that resemble New York's law. In September, Missouri Attorney General Eric Schmitt referred 12 former priests for criminal prosecution. And earlier this year in New York, the state's archbishop, Timothy Dolan, released the names of more than 100 priests who have been "credibly accused" of abusing children.
In September, the pressure in Buffalo ramped up considerably when the local ABC affiliate WKBW released secret recordings of Malone purportedly revealing his knowledge — and apparent intent to cover up — a brewing sexual harassment scandal.
"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. "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."
One day after the recording's release, Malone held a news conference attempting to explain his language on the recording and defend his judgment.
"I feel an obligation, as the bishop of this diocese, to do all the best I can, working with a lot of people — including a lot of laity — to move us forward toward a restoration of trust," he said at the time.
By mid-September, though, The Buffalo News published a poll showing a vast majority of local residents saying they felt Malone should resign the post he held since 2012.
Malone maintained a relatively defiant tone in his "early retirement" announcement Wednesday, asserting that the diocese has made progress under his tenure and that "there has not been a single priest of this Diocese ordained in the past 30 years who has had an allegation of child sex abuse substantiated."
That said, he acknowledged that he was not the right person to move the diocese forward in a difficult time.
"It is my fervent belief that a bishop must not only represent the unity of our Catholic Faith and the Church Universal, but be able to bring about true Christian unity among those he is charged with leading," he said. "It is my honest assessment that I have accomplished as much as I am able to, and that there remain divisions and wounds that I am unable to bind and heal."