State Attorney General sues Catholic Diocese, retired bishops for 'failing to protect minors'

Nov 23, 2020

New York State Attorney General Letitia James announced Monday her office has filed a lawsuit against the Roman Catholic Diocese of Buffalo, Bishop Emeritus Richard Malone and former Auxiliary Bishop Edward Grosz, accusing the parties of failing to protect minors from clergy sexual abuse.

The lawsuit contends "for nearly two decades, the Diocesan Corporation ignored standards established by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) in June 2002 to address and prevent the sexual abuse of minors by U.S. clergy. In direct defiance of the USCCB’s public commitment to reform, the Diocesan Corporation, through the conduct of its senior leadership, evaded key provisions of these standards, ignoring requirements for the investigation and review of alleged clergy sexual abuse." (Click here to read the complaint.)

Bishop Emeritus Richard Malone, seen here in 2015, the Catholic Diocese of Buffalo, former Auxiliary Bishop Edward Grosz and current Apostolic Administrator Edward Scharfenberger are named defendants in a lawsuit filed Monday by New York State Attorney General Letitia James.
Credit WBFO file photo

"When trust is broken with spiritual leaders, it can lead to a crisis of faith," said Attorney General James in a prepared written statement. "For years, the Diocese of Buffalo and its leadership failed to protect children from sexual abuse. Instead, they chose to protect the very priests who were credibly accused of these atrocious acts. Individuals who are victims of abuse deserve to have their claims timely investigated and determined, and the Buffalo Diocese refused to give them that chance. While we will never be able to undo the wrongs of the past, I can guarantee that my office will do everything in its power to ensure trust, transparency, and accountability moving forward.”

The lawsuit was filed in the New York County Supreme Court, applying New York’s civil laws governing nonprofit charitable corporations, religious corporations, and charitable assets to address the failed institutional and individual responses to the decades-long crisis of clergy sexual abuse.

According to the complaint, more than two dozen priests accused of allegations never had their cases brought to the Vatican for potential removal. Additionally, Malone and Grosz are accused if misusing charitable assets to support those accused clergy.

The Attorney General also filed a motion to allow the disclosure of names of accused clergy, as well as their alleged actions.

The Diocese of Buffalo and its leaders, under state law, have a responsibility to discharge their duties in good faith and "with the care a prudent person would use, including their duty to comply with the procedures they have publicly adopted to respond to victims and address the conduct of their employees," according to James' office.

The Diocese of Buffalo issued the following written reply: "We will be reviewing this lawsuit just announced by the New York Attorney General and weighing the Diocese’s response.  In the meantime, we wish to reiterate that there is zero tolerance for sexual abuse of a minor or of sexual harassment of an adult in the Diocese of Buffalo by any member of the clergy, employee or volunteer.  The Diocese has put in place rigorous policies and protocols governing required behavior as well as a code of conduct which all clergy are expected to abide by.  Moreover, the Diocese has committed to full cooperation with all civil authorities in both the reporting and investigation of alleged crimes and complaints."

What Bishop Malone would describe as a "tsunami" of complaints began in February 2018. It was then that Michael Whalen, during a news conference in Buffalo pushing for passage of the Child Victims Act, spoke of his own story of abuse as a minor by a member of the clergy. He identified Father Norbert Orsolits as his abuser. The Buffalo News later approached Orsolits, who admitted to inappropriate contact with several minors.

Malone faced increased pressure to resign and retired in December 2019. Bishop Edward Scharfenberger was named Apostolic Administrator of the Diocese to serve as a caretaker until the Vatican names a permanent successor. Scharfenberger is also named in the lawsuit.

New York State passed and enacted the Child Victims Act in 2019. The window for an expanded look-back period revisiting old cases previously outside the statute of limitations opened in August of 2019.

The Catholic Diocese of Buffalo announced on February 28, 2020 it was filing for Chapter 11 Bankruptcy.

The diocese also reportedly remains under federal investigation. WKBW-TV reported that while the US Attorney's Office in Buffalo would not confirm the probe, the station's sources indicated that a grand jury was put in place to hear testimony.