In this hardscrabble Rust Belt city with deep Catholic roots, the Catholic Church’s top official is facing calls for his resignation over his handling of sexual abuse allegations against priests.
Documents obtained by CNN suggest Bishop Richard J. Malone did not sanction priests accused of sexual abuse and concealed the identities of alleged “predator priests” from the public.
In a preemptive move in March, Malone released a list of 42 priests in the Buffalo diocese who had left the priesthood after facing accusations of sexually abusing minors. “The diocese of Buffalo is committed to correcting the mistakes and sins of the past,” he said at the time.
But a trove of secret diocesan records, first reported by CNN affiliate WKBW and obtained by CNN, show the number of accused priests could be up to 200.
The records are stashed by diocese officials in what they call the “Secret Archives” – confidential files of living priests who are still being monitored – or “the Well,” which contains case files that are to be shredded.
Part of the trove comes from a thick black binder kept in a closet next to a vacuum cleaner, according to a source familiar with the matter. The source told CNN that the binder is a 300-page briefing book prepared by the dioceses’ attorneys for Malone when he became bishop in 2012.
It contains “pending matters” in “anticipation of litigation,” and lists the names of dozens of accused priests as well as a number of victim accounts.
The allegations come amid heightened scrutiny in dioceses across the country after a scathing grand jury report last month found credible evidence of widespread sexual abuse by Catholic priests in Pennsylvania.
The New York attorney general has issued civil subpoenas for all eight Catholic dioceses in the state as part of a civil investigation into how the dioceses potentially covered up allegations of the sexual abuse of minors.
Taken together, the documents suggest Malone kept the names of alleged predator priests hidden from the public and knowingly allowed some of them to remain in active ministry.
Meanwhile, Malone is facing increasing pressure to give up his leadership of the Buffalo Diocese, home to nearly 600,000 Catholics.
In recent weeks three of his top staff have quit their posts and thousands of people have signed an online petition seeking his ouster. Most recently, a prominent Buffalo businessman and deacon has begun withholding donations to the diocese until Malone resigns and there is an investigation.
Malone has resisted calls for him to resign – “The shepherd does not desert the flock at a difficult time,” he said earlier this month – and would not agree to an interview with CNN.
But Kathy Spangler, director of communications for the diocese, responded to a handful of questions Tuesday via email.
Asked why the diocese released the names of only 42 priests when internal documents show knowledge of up to 200 priests with allegations against them, she said, “because the list of 42 priests were priests against whom we had substantiated allegations” – meaning more than one allegation – and were accused of abusing minors, not adults.
Spangler also said Malone has no intention of resigning.
“There is much support for him to stay on and lead the Diocese through this storm to renewal and purification and a new beginning,” she said.
Allegations against a prominent priest
As recently as August, Father Robert Yetter was a leader in Buffalo’s Catholic community. He was the top priest at St. Mary’s Church – one of the top-contributing parishes in the diocese – when Malone released his list of accused priests in March.
But Yetter, who at 70 had spent decades ministering in the Buffalo diocese, was harboring a dark secret: He had been accused of sexual abuse by multiple victims.
A review of internal documents suggest Malone and other church officials were aware of these allegations last year but kept Yetter’s name off their public list.
The disclosure has outraged Paul Snyder, a Buffalo businessman and deacon who was ordained by Yetter.
“I felt betrayed by our priest. I felt betrayed by our bishop,” Snyder said. He told CNN that members of his congregation have been filling his phone and inbox with concerned messages – some of them from alleged victims of Yetter who are coming forward to share their stories.
One of them is a former altar boy who CNN has agreed to identify only as Roger. Roger, who didn’t want his identity revealed, told CNN that while Father Yetter didn’t cross the line with him until he became an adult, he said the priest began “grooming” him in 2nd grade by showering him with hugs and attention and attending regular family dinners at his home.
When Roger was in college and struggling with how to come out to his family as gay, he said he received a phone call from Father Yetter inviting him to dinner.
Roger said he felt reassured, so he took the priest up on what he thought was an odd invitation to accompany him back to the rectory. There, Roger said, Yetter offered him shots of Goldschlager, exposed himself and asked for oral sex.
Roger told CNN he managed to escape the encounter. But when another accuser reported a similar encounter with Yetter last year, according to documents obtained by CNN, the diocese merely sent Yetter to counseling and on a mission trip abroad.
Yetter responded by penning a letter to the diocese last year, cautioning that removing him would have negative consequences for church coffers, since his parish accounted for some of the largest contributions in the diocese.
Four months later, in January, Malone wrote Yetter a letter in which the bishop thanked the priest for his “faithful and effective ministry” and allowed him to continue preaching.
After a new abuse complaint was made against him, Yetter was forced to resign in August and was placed on administrative leave pending an investigation by the diocese. He has not responded to multiple requests for comment by CNN.
Asked why Yetter was not removed from his ministry after allegations surfaced that he had groped young men, Spangler said, “We have a stringent and effective protocol across the country for the abuse of minors, but we do not yet have a parallel protocol for the allegation of misconduct with adults. We are in the process of generating one at this time.”
Yetter was kept off the list of 42 priests because “The priests on the list were those accused of abuse of minors,” she said.
Malone: ‘We can do better’
A review of email correspondence concerning a secret list of accused priests used by Malone and top advisors in March of this year seems to reveal the justification for leaving Yetter and another accused priest off the public list.
“You were right to keep those 2 names confidential. Thank you,” Malone wrote.
When it came to Yetter, the explanation was short: “Not (a) Charter case.”
In church abuse parlance a “charter case” is one in which the alleged abuse occurred when the victim was not yet 18. Since Roger was in his early 20s, he would not be a charter case.
The “charter case” justification was not the only one employed to pare the list down to its eventual 42. Other priests were kept off the list because they had only “one complaint” against them, or because the priest was from a separate order.
Malone acknowledged in a statement earlier this month that while he reported instances of abuse involving minors, he had “not acted in the same manner when the victim was an adult at the time of the abuse.”
“Let me be clear. My handling of recent claims from some of our parishioners concerning sexual misconduct with adults unquestionably has fallen short of the standard to which you hold us, and to which we hold ourselves,” he said. “We can do better. We will do better.”
Despite the diocese documents obtained by CNN, the only consequences the Bishop may face are of the ecclesiastical variety. Pope Francis is the only person with the power to remove Malone from his post.
The Vatican has not responded formally to a request for comment on the case. A Vatican source told CNN that given the seriousness of the accusations, a report on the Buffalo diocese has “certainly” already arrived in Rome.
When it comes to potential criminal charges against Malone, there is virtually almost no legal recourse. A New York state law requires teachers, health care workers, child care workers and others to report any suspected child abuse to the authorities, but there is no such mandate for bishops or other clergy members.
“Believe it or not, clergy is not on that list,” Erie County District Attorney John Flynn told CNN. “So there’s … a strong probability … that there is not going to be a prosecutorial case here in Erie County or in any county across the state.”
Deacon: ‘We still don’t know the truth’
If Malone failed to report known abuse in his diocese, he would hardly be the first church official to be spared criminal charges.
Perhaps the most famous such prelate is Bernard Law, the disgraced former Archbishop of Boston who allowed systemic abuse to continue unabated by overseeing the quiet reshuffling of predator priests for almost 20 years. Untouchable to Massachusetts prosecutors, Law retired to a quiet life in the Vatican, where he died last year.
Malone began his clerical career in Massachusetts, worked under Law and considered him a mentor.
“He tragically became a scapegoat,” Malone wrote in an email upon hearing of Law’s death. “I will always be grateful to him for his priestly example.”
This hasn’t discouraged Deacon Snyder, who took the extraordinary step of using a Sunday homily this month to call on Malone to resign.
“To not be informed is to put all of the members of our parish family in jeopardy,” Snyder told CNN. “Jesus called us to protect the downtrodden: orphans, widows to protect the innocent to protect the poor. He didn’t say protect the predators. He didn’t say protect the money in our (diocese) trust funds.”
Now the devout Catholic is using something arguably more powerful than his pulpit to pressure Malone into resigning.
“I have chosen to set my contributions (to the church) aside,” Snyder told CNN. “I will release them to the diocese when this bishop resigns and there’s a full investigation, and (when) the truth is revealed about what’s taken place (…) within the Diocese of Buffalo. Because we still don’t know the truth.”