PORTLAND — Bishop Richard J. Malone, the head of the Catholic Church in Maine, was in Aroostook County last week speaking to a parish. He was scheduled to appear in Millinocket later that same day, but had some time to kill.

A parishioner encouraged Malone to take Route 2 south, where he would be rewarded with an unusual sight – a herd of buffalo easily visible from the road. The bishop had never seen the massive mammals up close, so he took the long way.

The very next day, Malone received word from the Vatican that Pope Benedict XVI had reassigned him to a new diocese – in Buffalo, N.Y.

“If that’s not a sign, I don’t know what is,” said Monsignor Michael Henchal of St. Maximilian Kolbe in Scarborough, who served closely with Maine’s bishop and shared the story Tuesday.

Malone, 66, was unable to tell the story himself because he was in New York for the formal announcement of his appointment. Malone will be officially installed in August, when the current bishop in Buffalo, Edward U. Kmiec, retires.

“I am most grateful to our Holy Father for his trust in appointing me bishop of the Diocese of Buffalo,” Malone said in a prepared statement. “While there is sadness in my heart at leaving the Catholic faithful of Maine, especially the priests, deacons, consecrated religious, seminarians and lay leaders, I look forward with enthusiasm to taking up my responsibility as chief shepherd of the Church of Buffalo.”

Malone has been the head of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Portland since March 2004. His tenure has been marked by an ambitious consolidation of the state’s parishes beginning in 2005; a prominent but controversial role in the 2009 effort to overturn a same-sex marriage law; and the continued residual effects of the priest sex abuse scandal that has plagued the church nationally.

A Salem, Mass., native who spent most of his adult life in Massachusetts, Malone came to Maine directly from Boston, the epicenter of the sex abuse scandal. He frequently was castigated for his handling of priests in Maine who were suspected of abuse, even though little, if any of the abuse happened under his watch.

Barbara Dorris, outreach director of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, criticized Malone’s appointment in a statement released shortly after Tuesday’s announcement.

“It’s important to remember that Malone worked under the disgraced Cardinal Bernard Law of Boston,” Dorris said. “In 2010, it was disclosed that Malone was keeping secret the identity of seven recently accused Maine predator priests. We believe his secrecy violates his promises and the U.S. bishops abuse policy.

“If the church hierarchy ever truly wants to put an end to the abuse and cover-up crisis, the Vatican should promote men who actively do that within their own dioceses. Instead, they promote the status quo and continue business as usual,” Dorris said.

Sue Bernard, a spokeswoman for the diocese, challenged those allegations and said Malone has done much to improve trust within the church in the wake of the abuse scandal. She also said that, although Malone worked under Law, the bishop had nothing to do with priest assignments.

Barbara Smith of Scarborough, who worked for the diocese under Malone, said he was a strong administrator.

“He gave you a job, but didn’t stand over your shoulder. He trusted you,” she said. As for the abuse scandal, Smith said Malone was transparent and compassionate.

Henchal said Malone has handled criticism well and has been a strong voice for the Catholic Church in Maine. He called Malone “more charismatic and comfortable in front of the camera” than his predecessor, Bishop Joseph Gerry, who led Maine’s diocese from 1989 to 2004.

Malone was particularly visible three years ago in the successful people’s veto of a same-sex marriage law in Maine. In addition to raising money from members, the bishop strongly encouraged all Catholics to oppose gay marriage.

“To redefine marriage to include same-sex couples is to strip marriage of an essential component, namely the ability and obligation to procreate,” he wrote in a 2008 letter to church members. “To strip marriage of this essential component is to render marriage meaningless and open it up to endless revision and redefinition.”

Later this year, Maine voters again will be asked whether they want to allow same-sex marriage, but this time, Malone said the Catholic Church would take a back seat.

Another of Malone’s major initiatives during his tenure was to consolidate the state’s parishes from 135 to about 60. Henchal explained that the clustering of parishes was essential for the improved functioning of the diocese in a rural state like Maine, which has seen dramatic population shifts.

The consolidation helped address declining membership and the dwindling number of ordained priests.

Once Malone is installed in Buffalo, a temporary administrator for Maine’s diocese will be chosen by a group of local priests known as the College of Consultors. The process for finding a permanent successor could take up to a year, Bernard said.

It’s likely that Maine’s next bishop will endure continued criticism and will face a continued decline in the number of parishioners, a trend that is not unique to Maine.

Currently, there are about 187,000 Mainers who identify themselves as Catholic, according to the diocese’s website. That’s down from 234,000 members when Malone started in 2004.

In his new assignment in Buffalo, Malone will oversee 169 parishes – 32 churches in the city alone – as well as seven colleges and universities, 15 high schools and more than 633,000 Catholics. Bishop Kmiec, the man he will succeed, said he expected Malone to receive a warm welcome in New York.

“Bishop Malone comes to Western New York with tremendous experience and a wonderful reputation for being a caring, pastoral bishop and a true shepherd to his people,” Kmiec said in a prepared statement. “I am sure the faithful of the diocese will be ready and willing to support him to further the mission of the diocese.”

As for Maine, Smith had some advice for the state’s next bishop: “Stay true to your motto. Each bishop picks his motto and it guides them.”

 

Staff Writer Eric Russell can be contacted at 791-6344 or at: [email protected]

Twitter: @PPHEricRussell