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Plan to consolidate parishes, very public opposition to same-sex marriage define bishop’s time in Maine

Posted Aug. 09, 2012, at 5:28 p.m.
Last modified Aug. 10, 2012, at 7:25 a.m.
Bishop Richard Malone speaks Monday, July 30, 2012 during an interview in Portland, Maine. Malone is being reassigned to the diocese of Buffalo N.Y., but will remain as the Administrator of the diocese of Portland until a replacement is named.
Joel Page | BDN
Bishop Richard Malone speaks Monday, July 30, 2012 during an interview in Portland, Maine. Malone is being reassigned to the diocese of Buffalo N.Y., but will remain as the Administrator of the diocese of Portland until a replacement is named.

PORTLAND, Maine — Maine’s Catholic shepherd for eight years will receive his new flock Friday when he is installed as the bishop of the Diocese of Buffalo, N.Y.

Bishop Richard J. Malone, 66, most likely will be remembered by Maine Catholics for his New Evangelization plan, which consolidated 137 parishes into 57. For non-Catholics, Malone’s legacy may be his leadership role in opposing same-sex marriage in 2009 and again this year.

Malone was appointed bishop of the Diocese of Buffalo, N.Y., on May 29. He was welcomed last week to his new home by a small contingent of diocesan officials and schoolchildren at Buffalo Niagara International Airport.

That diocese is made up of 633,000 Catholics, three times the number in the Roman Catholic Diocese of Portland.

“It feels like a daunting thing,” the bishop said of his new assignment in an interview July 30. “There are three times as many priests and about 800 nuns [in Buffalo]. We have one Catholic college in Maine, seven there. But it is not as big geographically — 6,300 square miles there compared to 33,215 here. So the gas bill will be a lot less.”

Malone said that by publicly taking stands against same-sex marriage and the provision in President Barack Obama’s health care plan that mandated coverage for birth control he was fulfilling his role to advance Catholic teaching.

“I believe it has been a very good thing for the Bishop to weigh in on issues that directly affect the moral principles and teachings of our church,” Baber said. “He reflected our core beliefs as Catholics and made it clear that we as a church need to become involved when our core beliefs are at risk.”

The bishop’s statements on both subjects have been in line with those made by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and most of his colleagues. Over the past eight years, he created Harvest magazine, published six times a year by the diocese, and launched The Presence radio network as a way to better communicate church teachings to Catholics and non-Catholics.

“The thing that’s sometimes a secret or a mystery to people, but is the truth, is that every single aspect of Catholic teaching, every bit of it, is connected with every other bit of it,” Malone said. “If you think of a constellation of stars in the sky, that’s really how Catholic teaching works. Sometimes people deal with these things as though they are all disparate teachings, all disconnected.

“For example, our concern about the nature of marriage comes down to how we think about the nature of man and woman in Catholic theology,” he continued. “It gets that basic, in that man and woman are made for complementarity and for fruitfulness in terms of new life. Before we even talk about marriage and so-called same-sex marriage, we talk about what we call theological anthropology, which is big words for how do Catholics talk about the human person as God has created us.”

In the 2009, the diocese gave $500,000 and lent its public policy director full time to the campaign that successfully repealed, by a vote of 53 percent to 47 percent, Maine’s same-sex marriage law.

Malone announced in March that he and the diocese would sit on the sidelines during this year’s same-sex marriage referendum campaign. The bishop said the diocese instead would focus on teaching parishioners about the sanctity of marriage between a man and a woman and he issued a pastoral letter on the subject.

Some Catholics disagree with how Malone has handled the issue and feel it has caused people to leave the church.

“His very visible role in the same-sex marriage vote the last time cost the church heavily,” Sue Ewing of Portland, a member of Catholics for Marriage Equality, said Thursday in an email. “Not just in money, but in the loss of countless thinking Catholics who had no stomach for injustice. People left in droves because of this and his stand on the Obama health care program.”

The diocese’s own statistics point to a loss of members during Malone’s tenure. When he was installed in 2004, there were 234,000 Roman Catholics in the diocese. As Malone leaves the state, there are 187,306 adherents, according to information posted on the diocesan website. While Maine has the lowest percentage of people in the country who claim a religious affiliation, the Catholic Church has the most members of any denomination in Maine.

The Rev. Jill Saxby, head of the Maine Council of Churches, of which the Roman Catholic Diocese of Portland is a member, said Thursday that Malone raised the political profile of the diocese in Maine. She said that under his leadership, the church has spoken out on many other issues.

“What I think of when I think of the Catholic Church’s presence in the political sphere is their unflagging public moral witness — on their own and side by side with the Protestant churches through MCC, which the Diocese has faithfully supported — on issues of poverty, the environment and human rights,” she said in an email. “In all of these areas, Bishop Malone, the Diocese, and many individual Roman Catholics, have been consistent advocates for justice, especially on behalf of the most vulnerable and the voiceless. This is, of course, in line with Catholic social teaching.”

During the last few years of his tenure, Malone came under fire from the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, also known as SNAP. The organization has urged Malone to create an online registry of priests who have been removed from the ministry because of credible allegations of abuse. Malone has refused to do that but has said local church officials and law enforcement are informed where a priest removed from the ministry is living.

“The purpose of a diocese online registry is twofold,” Robert Gossert, the SNAP representative for Maine, said Wednesday in an email. “One, by giving names and the current locations of the abusers, the public can protect children; two, by giving all previous assignments of abusers, parents, parishioners and others can gain knowledge of possible contact between their child and abusers.

“Bishops are responsible for the behavior of the priests who live in their state, even if they come from somewhere else, even if their crimes were committed in other states, even if they belong to an order whose principal and central office[s] are located in another state,” he said. “To include not only priests removed from ministry but also those who are still priests but are prohibited to practice ministry because of past sex convictions is equally essential.”

When asked last week if the sex abuse scandal is over, Malone said, “Yes and no.”

“As long as we have humans being wounded by sin, how can we ever guarantee there will be no abuse?” he said. “I am confident that we have protocols in place for a safe environment. We can reduce the possibility, be we can’t guarantee it will never happen again.”

Malone pointed out that for the past six years an external audit of the diocese has found it to be in compliance with the standards and effectiveness of its child protection policies and practices.

A Beverly, Mass., native, Malone was ordained a priest in 1972 and spent the bulk of his career in and around Boston, where he was elevated to auxiliary bishop in 2000, before being named bishop of Maine four years later.

At his installation on March 31, 2004, Malone outlined his goals for the diocese:

• Reconfiguring parishes so that evangelization can be effective.

• A special focus on nurturing people interested in the priesthood and religious life.

• Identifying, supporting and collaborating with lay leaders.

• Making education a priority by supporting Catholic schools, lifelong faith formation, adult religious education and youth and young-adult ministry.

• Advancing Catholic teaching on matters of social justice, peace and respect for human life.

As Malone prepared for the transition to his new job in Buffalo, the bishop, Catholics and others reflected on his effectiveness in implementing those goals and his legacy.

“Bishop Malone’s greatest legacy has been his efforts in promoting the New Evangelization of the Catholic faith here in Maine,” Brett Baber, an active Catholic from Veazie, said earlier this week in an email. “Through those efforts, the bishop sought to reach out to nonpracticing Catholics and nonreligious [people] to encourage those individuals to consider joining the Catholic church once again or for the first time in their lives.”

The New Evangelization plan, announced in the year after Malone’s installation, called for a shift in the way ordained and lay Catholics view their roles in the church. One of the driving forces behind the reorganization was the number of priests expected to retire by 2010. When the plan was announced in 2005, there were 90 active diocesan priests. According to information on the diocesan website Thursday, there are now 69 active diocesan priests in Maine and 86 who are retired or ill.

Under Malone’s guidance, parishes now are made up of a group of churches in geographic regions with between two and 10 worship sites in each parish. Parishes are overseen by one board made up of members from each church.

That reconfiguration is “pretty much finished,” except for two or three clusters in the Portland area, Malone said in the interview. Under his leadership, 16 churches, six schools and some seasonal missions were closed.

“Structurally speaking, we have moved in the right direction,” he said. “Now what we need to do is strengthen our efforts at evangelization with more outreach to inactive Catholics in particular. The other piece of evangelization is to try to make the world better, to try to transform what is in many ways a very secular culture and to have more godly values.”

During Malone’s tenure in Maine, 13 men were ordained as priests, and the membership of the permanent diaconate — married men ordained to assist priests in nonsacramental duties — increased. Malone also expanded the role of the laity and consolidated youth and teen faith education programs to focus on lifelong faith formation. In addition to those changes, Malone raised $42.2 million in pledges in a capital campaign in which 25 percent of the money raised is to be returned to parishes where contributors worship.

Although Malone has moved to Buffalo, he will continue to oversee the Maine diocese. Last month, Pope Benedict XVI appointed the bishop its apostolic administrator in Maine, effective the day of his installation in Buffalo.

Malone will continue to serve Catholics in Maine and western New York until the pope names a new bishop for the Diocese of Portland.

“I was surprised to be asked to do this,” Malone said last week. “It is kind of unusual for a former bishop just beginning in a new diocese to be asked to take care of the old diocese. Normally, the Holy Father would ask another bishop from somewhere in New England, such as the Archdiocese of Boston, to administer the diocese.”

Day-to-day operations will be handled by Monsignor Andrew Dubois and Monsignor Michael J. Henchal, who served as vicars general under Malone. The bishop said he would teleconference weekly with key staff members in Maine and spend a couple of days a month in the state.

Malone said that as apostolic administrator he would have all the authority he had as bishop in Maine but would not be able to do anything “significantly new,” such as authorize construction of a new building or close a church.

Although he will continue to speak to Maine Catholics about same-sex marriage, Malone has registered to vote in New York and plans to cast his ballot in Buffalo, Sue Bernard, spokeswoman for the diocese, said Thursday.

It is unlikely a new bishop will be named for Maine before the November election. Malone said he hopes his successor will “be vigorously involved in the work of the New Evangelization plan.”

“We just have too many empty seats at the Lord’s table on Sundays,” he said. “Even though there is this hyped-up promotion of atheism these days, I don’t think that’s the issue with inactive Catholics. People’s lives get busy. Church drops down on this list of activities. We need to be more effective in addressing that than we have been.”

Baber agreed that reaching the 70 percent of Maine residents who are not actively involved in a church or who do not believe in God should be a priority for the next bishop.

Ewing disagreed.

“The next bishop should listen to his flock,” she said. “We are the church, rather than the 2 percent of those ordained. We will no longer just pay, pray and obey. We are educated and informed and want to live the gospel message of love and compassion and inclusivity.”

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