PORTLAND — The pope has sent Maine’s highest-ranking Catholic, Bishop Richard J. Malone, to the Diocese of Buffalo.
The move will result in an opening that could last for up to a year, officials of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Portland said Tuesday.
The decision, made by Pope Benedict XVI a week ago, was announced publicly Tuesday morning. Malone said that, in retrospect, he saw a sign from God that presaged the decision.
“Sometimes, subtle indications of God’s plan for us only become apparent in hindsight,” Malone said during a teleconference from Buffalo. “The day before the archbishop called me, I was up in northern Maine celebrating confirmation liturgies. … One of the folks up there advised us to get off the interstate and take a more rural route. … He said, ‘If you’re really lucky, you’ll see a herd of buffalo.’ And there they were, 10 buffaloes grazing in a field.”
Malone was born in Massachusetts in 1946, and was ordained to the priesthood in 1972 in Boston. He served as the auxiliary bishop of the Archdiocese in Boston from 2000 to March 2004, when he became the 11th bishop of Portland.
Malone said the call to serve in the Diocese in Buffalo, which has three times as many Catholics as Maine, was “surprising and very happy news.”
“I accepted immediately,” he said.
Still, said Malone, he will miss the Northeast.
“I will certainly miss Maine,” he said, “and the region where I have spent all of my life until now.”
Monsignor Andrew Dubois of the Diocese of Portland said that the decision didn’t alter Malone’s focus on his Maine schedule over the course of the past week.
“In many ways, it’s been business as usual,” Dubois said.
Sue Bernard, communications director for the Portland Diocese, said Malone’s transfer will probably be challenging for him.
“He did talk about how he doesn’t know one soul in Buffalo, so I think that’s going to be tough,” she said. “But this is the life of a priest. He seemed to be in very good spirits.”
Dubois said Malone’s Aug. 10 installation in Buffalo will not shake the church’s commitment to defining marriage in Maine as between a man and a woman, a debate in which Malone has played a central role.
“Because the teaching of the church is solid, … the teaching does not change and therefore every priest, every deacon, every layperson who is faithful to the church is going to continue speaking about the beauty and truth of marriage as we’ve known it for the last 2,000 years,” Dubois said.
Malone has presided over a period of restructuring of church entities driven by a reduction in resources.
“In my eight years in Portland, we went from 135 parishes and 45 missions … and have gone to about 66 parishes,” he said Tuesday. “Many of those have been mergers. … In many cases, six, seven, eight, nine, even as many as 10 churches have become one.”
Dubois said that the church may be able to avoid significant reorganization for the immediate future.
“I’m hoping that this will keep us in good stead for the next eight or 10 years. I really do,” he said.
An interim bishop of Portland is expected to be appointed within a week, pending a permanent appointment by the Pope. Bernard said that an extensive vetting of candidates can make the process for permanent appointment take up to a year.
She said the permanent replacement could be an existing bishop, or it could be someone who is being promoted.
During his tenure in Portland, Malone came under fire from critics who said he has shielded priests guilty of child molestation from the consequences of their actions. One organization, the Ignatius Group, held a protest in April near Malone’s home in Falmouth, and has repeatedly called upon the bishop to publicize the whereabouts of priests known to have committed sexual abuse against children.
While Malone spoke of transparency as a high priority in Buffalo, Paul Kendrick, of the Ignatius Group, said Malone’s time in Portland was marked by a closing of the ranks.
“I’m sad when I think about what could have been over the past eight years,” he said. “As an advocate for clergy sexual abuse victims, I’ve watched as Bishop Malone and his priests have bullied mistreated, ostracized, rejected, and played hardball legal tactics with the same kids who piled into the family car to go to mass every Sunday.”
Kendrick said that Malone’s replacement is unlikely to change the situation.
“I have no hope whatsoever,” he said. “They will dispatch to Maine a clone of Bishop Malone.”
Now 66, Malone could serve in Buffalo for as many as nine more years before he reaches the church-mandated retirement age of 75.
He replaces retiring Bishop Edward Kmiec, who announced his resignation when he turned 75 last June.
The Diocese in Buffalo oversees 633,000 Catholics in eight counties, compared to 187,000 in all of Maine.
Bishop Edward U. Kmiec, left, shakes hands with Bishop Richard Malone of Portland, who will replace Kmiec as the Bishop of the Diocese of Buffalo on Aug. 10.