PORTLAND, Maine — At a news conference two weeks ago, Buffalo Bishop Richard J. Malone said he had a good record on dealing with sexually abusive priests.
“You call it cover-up, we call it confidentiality,” he told reporters in Buffalo, New York.
Malone pointed to his time in the Diocese of Portland, Maine, where he served for eight years before coming to Buffalo.
But on the ground in the bishop’s old diocese, advocates for victims of sexual abuse and new documents obtained by the 7 Eyewitness News I-Team paint a much different picture of the bishop’s past — especially when it comes to dealing with sexual abuse.
“The Bishop Malone that I came to know here in Maine … is an actor on a stage,” said Paul T. Kendrick, an advocate for victims of sexual abuse in the Diocese of Portland. “Malone is a fake, a phony. He’s not telling the truth when he likes to say, ‘I never knew.’”
Kendrick sparred with Malone many times, calling for him to be more transparent about abusive priests in his diocese. His battles with Malone drew national attention when the bishop threatened to deny Kendrick Holy Communion after claiming Kendrick’s actions constituted “harassment.”
But even Kendrick didn’t know about the contents of two confidential documents obtained by the I-Team that describe how Malone handled abuse controversies involving two accused priests in Maine.
The documents are summaries of two separate investigations conducted by John S. Brennan, former director of the Office of Professional Responsibility for the Diocese of Portland under Malone.
Brennan, who is also a Catholic deacon, joined the diocese after a 30-year career in law enforcement, where he advanced to leadership positions within the Portland Police Department, retiring as deputy police chief.
Brennan declined an interview request because he is cooperating with FBI agents in Maine, but he confirmed the authenticity of the documents to the I-Team.
‘Cover-up of the highest order’
“With respect to the Vatican and Bishop Malone,” he wrote in one report, “this was a complete cover-up of the highest order that cannot possibly be explained or defended and still screams out for justice.”
That case unfolded in 2004 at St. John the Evangelist Church in South Portland, where the Rev. Paul E. Coughlin was suspended for befriending a violent sex offender and allowing him to live in the parish rectory.
The sex offender was John Skinner Sr., a Maine man who was sentenced to 18 years in prison, with all but five years suspended, for sexually abusing two boys he met through Catholic church youth groups, according to news reports from the Bangor Daily News.
In his investigative reports, Brennan described what he called two “outrageous situations” regarding the pedophile and the priest.
The first involved a 15-year-old boy whom Skinner allegedly raped. The report said Skinner brought the boy to Father Coughlin, who failed to call the police, as was required by Maine law. Later, according to the report, Father Coughlin tried to get Skinner hired as a youth minister at his parish and allowed him to live in the parish rectory — steps away from a parish center frequented by kids.
“Are you kidding me?” Kendrick said. “You have a man who served time, been convicted of child sexual abuse, rape … you have him living in your rectory?”
Brennan wrote that after his investigation, the Vatican issued “a mild rebuke” of Father Coughlin and allowed Bishop Malone to remove him from ministry.
But after two years, “Bishop Malone took it upon himself to secretly return this priest to ministry,” the report states.
Newspaper archives confirm Brennan’s account, quoting Bishop Malone as saying, “I believe Father Coughlin has had adequate time to reflect on his actions.”
Malone then took the unusual step of barring Coughlin from ministry in three towns while allowing him to serve as a priest in the rest of the state.
Brennan said Malone reversed the decision only after employees at the Portland chancery, in an emergency meeting, expressed their outrage.
“I mean, what kind of insanity is that?” Kendrick asked. “This so-called crisis in the church has been going on about protecting children and this guy Coughlin brings in a convicted pedophile in to roam around. And Coughlin would think that’s OK and then Malone would go to bat for Coughlin?”
In a written statement, Malone said:
“I sought and obtained Father Coughlin’s resignation from ministry but Canon law required I review his case periodically. After three years, I allowed him to resume some priestly duties — saying Mass in convent chapels and filling in at weekend Masses. There was a significant outcry to this decision so I re-evaluated my decision and restricted his ministry.”
‘The whole trial is a farce’
The second case involved the Rev. Thomas M. Lee, who was accused of sexual abuse dating back decades that spilled out in the early 2000s.
Brennan, the church investigator, interviewed more than 10 adults who said Father Lee would take them camping when they were children and:
— “Allow them to swim nude as he shined a light on them”;
— “Suggested they should take turns showering”;
— “Entered the shower area and took photographs of them”;
— “Invited the children into his bedroom … and while they were still naked … covered their bodies with powder”;
— “He would then massage their entire bodies, including their genital areas … often using an electrical device as he massaged them.”
Brennan wrote a 60-page report, but the allegations went nowhere, even after the diocesan review board unanimously affirmed the complaint against Father Lee had been substantiated.
After a first internal church trial found Father Lee innocent, Brennan said he put pressure on Bishop Malone, telling him in a conversation in the diocesan mail room that “the Father Lee case would come back to haunt him and that if the Father Lee case resulted in a civil trial or some kind of criminal investigation, I would not lie or cover-up the facts to protect the diocese.”
Malone took Brennan’s advice and petitioned the Vatican for a second trial, but Lee was again found “innocent” after the three judges — all priests — found Father Lee’s actions “to be imprudent, but none of them were sinful in any respect.”
Brennan said he was not allowed to submit his reports at either trial and Sister Rita-Mae Bissonnette, chancellor for the Portland diocese and a top aide to Bishop Malone, told him he was not to contact witnesses to testify, he said.
7 Eyewitness News asked Thomas P. Doyle, a priest and canon lawyer who is a national expert in matters of clergy sexual abuse, to review and comment on the Lee case.
“My conclusion, based on what I read, is that the entire canonical process is completely invalid,” Doyle said in a phone interview. “It appeared that the thing was rigged. The whole trial is a farce. They shouldn’t have even have held one.”
The bishop told reporters in Maine he was “stunned” and “disappointed” at the outcome of the case, but Brennan wrote, “When I complained to Bishop Malone that this was yet another extraordinary cover-up by the Vatican of child sexual abuse by a member of the Catholic priesthood, he indicated that there was nothing more that he could do.”
Doyle disputed that claim, saying “there’s certainly more that he could do,” like hiring an outside investigator to complete a more thorough investigation.
“He was, I would say, complicit in the whole thing,” Doyle said of Bishop Malone.
In a written statement, Malone said:
“In the case of Father Lee, when the tribunal determined that the allegations were not proven, I supported an appeal. When a second tribunal reached the same conclusion, no further appeal was possible. Nevertheless, I continued the restrictions on his ministry. I know some were critical of the canonical process because they did not like the result. It’s no different than when people become frustrated with our justice system if they do not like the verdict. But the verdict stands.”
Malone did ask Lee to resign, news reports show, and Lee is retired but still listed as a priest in the Portland priest directory.
This summer, he was honored at a mass at Good Shepherd Parish, according to a parish bulletin from June.
Brennan said he “personally witnessed Father Lee proudly standing at the altar of the diocese’s Cathedral during major celebrations and I have even encountered him at a private reception at Bishop Malone’s home.”
Between New York and Maine, Bishop Malone has now been criticized for the way he handled five separate cases of misconduct involving minors.
Many have wondered why a bishop would take a chance supporting priests accused of abuse, but Kendrick has a theory.
“I see Malone as a career-climber,” Kendrick said. “He thought he’d go from here to I think Boston or Philadelphia or Chicago perhaps, one of the larger dioceses. That’s what he’s interested in. Because guess what? If he yells too loud, he’s not gonna go to Philadelphia, or Buffalo even. He knows that.”
In a written statement, Malone said:
“I stand by the fact that the canonical process, as it relates to Father Thomas Lee and Father Paul Coughlin, was scrupulously followed during my time as bishop in Portland, Maine. For anyone to imply that there was any sort of cover-up in either case is patently false. We were transparent, issuing press releases and letters to the faithful throughout both investigations.”
Bissonnette and a spokesman for the Portland Archdiocese did not respond to messages left for comment. Fathers Lee and Coughlin also did not respond to requests for comment.
This appears courtesy of WKBW in Buffalo.