Buffalo, N.Y., Sep 4, 2019 / 11:30 am (CNA).- Recordings of private conversations appear to show that Bishop Richard Malone of Buffalo believed sexual harassment accusations made against a diocesan priest months before the diocese removed the priest from ministry.
The contents of recordings of conversations between Bishop Malone and Fr. Ryszard Biernat, his secretary and diocesan vice chancellor, were reported on Wednesday by WKBW in Buffalo. In the conversations, Bishop Malone seems to acknowledge the legitimacy of accusations of harassment and a violation of the seal of confession made against a diocesan priest, Fr. Jeffrey Nowak, by a seminarian, months before the diocese removed Nowak from active ministry.
In an Aug. 2 conversation, Malone can reportedly be heard saying, “We are in a true crisis situation. True crisis. And everyone in the office is convinced this could be the end for me as bishop.”
The bishop is also heard to say that if the media reported on the Nowak situation, “it could force me to resign.”
The conversations were secretly recorded by Biernat as the bishop discussed how to deal with accusations against Nowak by then-seminarian Matthew Bojanowski, who accused Nowak of grooming him, sexually harassing him, and violating the Seal of the Confessional.
According to an abridged transcript of the recordings provided by WKBW, Malone said in March that “the simple version here is we’ve got victims and we have a perpetrator, and the perpetrator is Jeff Nowak, and he’s done things that are clearly wrong, and I think he’s a sick puppy. That’s my amateur analysis of the whole thing.”
Despite this assessment, Nowak was not removed from ministry until Aug. 7, one day after the seminarian’s mother publicly accused Malone of allowing Fr. Nowak to remain in ministry despite the allegations against him.
The diocese issued a statement on August 18 that Malone had “never” kept a priest in active ministry who had a “credible allegation of abusing a minor” made against him, and “has never ignored” the accusation that Nowak violated the sacramental seal.
Malone started an investigation of the complaint, the statement said, and “[w]hen the individual who made the complaint was first questioned, his response was vague and needed follow up.”
In a statement released on Sept. 4, the diocese said it “stands by” its previous statement.
The seminarian, Matthew Bojanowski, raised the allegations in a letter to Bishop Malone dated January 24, 2019, saying Nowak had also admitted to “inappropriate actions” with minors.
According to WKBW, Bojanowski first made the accusations known in October 2018, before he wrote Bishop Malone in January.
The recordings were reported by WKMB on Sept. 4 and were made by Biernat after Nowak became jealous of the close friendship between the seminarian and the bishop’s secretary.
“I thought, ‘I need to do something,’ so I started recording those meetings because they say one thing but they do nothing,” Biernat told WKBW. “And so you have one recording in March then [a] week later, another recording, and nothing is being done.”
The diocese confirmed in a Tuesday statement that Malone had previously asked Biernat to take a leave of absence after Nowak obtained a letter between him and Bojanowski. According to a conversation taped Aug. 2, the bishop was concerned that media coverage would focus on a possible “love triangle” between Nowak, Bojanowski, and Biernat.
According to taped conversations, which date back to March of this year, Malone appears to admit that Bojanowski’s accusations are credible, and he considered sending Nowak to the St. Luke’s Institute in Maryland for psychiatric treatment.
Bishop Malone referenced Bojanowski’s allegations and called them “frightening concerns”; he said that “it became very clear to me that Jeff– was very interested in a– an– I think an inappropriate relationship [for] himself with Matthew.”
Malone also receiving a letter from Nowak which he suggests confirms the accusations.
“I got this very carefully crafted– letter you’ve all seen now that details, I think, and gives evidence– that– that do back up the concerns that Matthew has,” Malone said, including the allegations of the violation of the Seal of Confession by Nowak.
Nowak “has some serious, serious issues,” Malone concluded. “We’re gonna send– and we’re gonna send him off to– for– assessment at St. Luke’s Institute of Maryland.”
Despite this apparent resolution, Malone later said he was concerned that Nowak would “go ballistic” if told he would be sent to St. Luke’s. In a taped conversation in July, Malone said that he told Nowak to either “go to Southdown”—an institute in Toronto that specializes in mental health and addiction problems for religious and clergy—or receive a leave of absence, and that Nowack decided to go to Southdown.
Nowak was still in active ministry in the diocese by the beginning of August.
Malone held a press conference Aug. 4 for local reporters selected by the diocese. The bishop said the scandal is a “convoluted matter,” according to WIVB4.
At the press conference, Malone emphasized that he does not plan to resign.
“I’m not a masochist-I’m here because I feel an obligation…to carry on,” the bishop told reporters, adding that he perceives enough support among local Catholics to continue in his post.
In a year of scandals related to clerical sexual abuse, Bishop Malone has repeatedly found himself at the center of media attention.
In November, 2018, a former employee leaked confidential diocesan documents related to the handling of claims of clerical sexual abuse.
Last month, a RICO lawsuit was filed against the diocese and the bishop, alleging that the response of the diocese was comparable to an organized crime syndicate.