VATICAN CITY (AP) – Pope Francis on Wednesday accepted the resignation of Buffalo Bishop Richard Malone following widespread criticism from his staff, priests and the public over how he handled allegations of clergy sexual misconduct.
The Vatican announced the resignation in a brief statement, adding that Francis had named the bishop of Albany, New York, Edward Scharfenberger, to run the Buffalo diocese temporarily until a permanent replacement is found.
The Vatican didnâ€™t say why Malone was resigning two years before the mandatory retirement age of 75. However, the Vatican conducted a recent investigation into the western New York diocese and Maloneâ€™s handling of abuse cases.
The diocese has been named in more than 220 recent lawsuits by people who claim they were sexually abused by priests.
Many of the claims date back decades, long before Maloneâ€™s arrival in Buffalo in 2012. But critics say there have been more recent missteps by Malone, including his decision to return to ministry a priest who had been suspended by a previous bishop for including â€œlove youâ€ in a Facebook message to an eighth-grade boy.
Malone later endorsed the same priest for a job as a cruise ship chaplain, even after he was also accused of making unwanted advances toward young men.
Malone has admitted to making mistakes in cases involving adult victims, but he had firmly refused to resign.
Pressure though on him to leave has been intense.
Over the past year, two key members of Maloneâ€™s staff have gone public with concerns about his leadership, including his former secretary, the Rev. Ryszard Biernat, who secretly recorded Malone calling a then-active priest â€œa sick puppy,â€ but taking no immediate action to remove him.
Earlier, his executive assistant, Siobhan Oâ€™Connor, leaked internal church documents after becoming concerned that Malone had intentionally omitted dozens of names from a publicly released list of priests with credible allegations of abuse.
In September, a group of lay Catholics that had been working with Malone to restore trust in the church instead joined in calls for his resignation.
A diocesan priest, meanwhile, has been circulating a â€œno confidenceâ€ letter for signatures.
The Vatican recently conducted an inquiry into the Buffalo diocese to get to the bottom of the problems. Bishop Nicholas DiMarzio, who led the inquiry, said heâ€™d finished his work after making three trips to western New York and interviewing about 80 people in and outside the church.
DiMarzioâ€™s report to the Vatican has not been made public.
Among those who have called for Maloneâ€™s resignation is the former dean of seminarians at the dioceseâ€™s Christ the King Seminary. In a letter outlining his decision to withdraw from his studies to become a priest, Stephen Parisi called the dioceseâ€™s handing of clerical sexual abuse cases â€œdisgusting and revoltingâ€ and raised questions about the institutionâ€™s academic practices and oversight.
Malone in April suspended three priests after several seminarians complained the older men subjected them to disturbing and offensive sexual discussions during a party at a rectory.
In refusing previous calls to step down, Malone had said he wanted to be part of the â€œrenewalâ€ of the diocese.
The diocese has paid out more than $18 million to more than 100 victims under a compensation program established last year. Since August, it has been named in a wave of new lawsuits under a New York state law that suspended the usual statute of limitations and opened a one-year window for victims to pursue claims regardless of when the abuse happened.
Attorneys general in several states, including New York, have begun civil investigations into how the Catholic church reviewed and potentially covered up abuse.