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NEW YORK (AP) — Bishop Richard Malone of Buffalo resigned Wednesday, forced to step aside amid mounting calls for his ouster from his staff, priests and public over his handling of allegations of clergy sexual misconduct.
The Vatican said Pope Francis accepted the resignation and appointed Edward Scharfenberger, the bishop of Albany, New York, to run the Buffalo Diocese until a permanent replacement is found.
Malone insisted he had decided to retire two years before the mandatory retirement age of 75 on his own accord, after much prayer and discernment. However, the Vatican embassy to the United States said Malone offered to retire only after learning the results of a Vatican-mandated investigation into the western New York diocese and its handling of abuse claims.
Malone said in a statement that "the spiritual welfare of the people of the Diocese of Buffalo will be better served by a new bishop who perhaps is better able to bring about the reconciliation, healing and renewal that is so needed."
Scharfenberger told a news conference in Buffalo that he wants to be seen as a healer willing to listen and to develop trust.
"I feel a little bit like the neighbor down the block," he said, "and I realize that this family has been suffering quite a bit in recent months and years. And my heart just goes out you. And what I see is a need for a tremendous amount of healing ... honest conversation, openness."
As the new apostolic administrator for Buffalo, Scharfenberger plans to visit the eight-county diocese weekly while keeping up with his duties in Albany.
The diocese has been named in more than 220 recent lawsuits by people who say they were sexually abused by priests.
Many of the allegations date back decades, long before Malone's arrival in Buffalo in 2012. But critics say there have been recent missteps by Malone, including his decision to return to ministry a priest who had been suspended by a previous bishop for including "love you" 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 acknowledged making mistakes in cases involving adult victims. But he had firmly refused to resign and insisted he wanted to stay on the job to see the diocese through a process of "renewal."
Pressure on him to leave was intense.
In the past year, two key members of Malone'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 "a sick puppy," but taking no immediate action to remove him.
Earlier, his executive assistant, Siobhan O'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.
A diocesan priest, meanwhile, circulated a "no confidence" letter for signatures.
And 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.
The group, the Movement to Restore Trust, said it received word of Malone's departure "with a mixture of sadness and relief."