In the midst of an ongoing crisis surrounding Bishop Richard Malone’s governance of the Diocese of Buffalo, newly revealed correspondence suggests a romantic relationship between the bishop’s priest secretary and a former diocesan seminarian who resigned last month.
In a press conference on Wednesday, Malone called the content of the letter “a bit concerning” and the entire situation “a very complex, convoluted matter.”
Letter speaks of ‘feelings of love’ and complicated relationship
In the correspondence, obtained by Crux, priest secretary Father Ryszard Biernat appears to have had a longtime relationship with Matthew Bojanowski, who resigned from the seminary in a press conference on August 20.
That same week the diocese announced that Biernat had also taken a leave of absence at the bishop’s request, effective August 14.
Neither Bojanowski nor Biernat responded to Crux’s request for comment through Barry Covert, an attorney who represents both individuals.
“I write to you with a heavy heart worrying that you may feel entrapped in our relationship,” writes Biernat to Bojanowski in a three-page, handwritten letter.
“Remember? The library of the bishop’s house? I hesitated at first in saying that I trully [sic] love you. What I have been feeling for you is something totally new and different from all the other feelings of love I have experienced.”
“Now, I have no hesitations in saying that I love you (in private and in public) and I will always love you more than yesterday,” he continues.
“I am afraid that all that you know about me may compromise your freedom to love or to leave,” Biernat later writes. The priest added that should Bojanowski leave, he didn’t not know what he would do “given my position in the diocese.”
The correspondence is dated July 13, 2016.
Two years later, a listing in the Buffalo News from August 2018 shows a real estate transaction of $83,000 for a property in Erie County under both of their names.
Bojanowski has maintained that his departure from the seminary is the result of Malone’s inaction after he informed the diocese that he was being sexually harassed by Father Jeffrey Nowak, pastor of Our Lady Help of Christians, and that Nowak had revealed information obtained from Bojanowski during confession.
Through their lawyer, Biernat and Bojanowski told the Buffalo News there was “no love triangle” calling the assertion “a complete deflection.”
During his Wednesday press conference, Malone said Biernat’s letter had been photographed by Nowak, and that version is the one that has been obtained by journalists, including Crux.
The bishop said Nowak had been friends with Bojanowski, but that began to change when Biernat entered the picture.
“Matthew’s relationship with Father Nowak cooled you might say, and this was disturbing to Father Nowak,” Malone said. “Father Nowak secretly photographed that letter he found in Matthew’s apartment in Boston, when he was visiting there. This is all several years ago.”
Malone has since suspended Nowak from ministry following Nowak twice refusing behavior assessments. His attorney, James Granville, did not respond to Crux’s request for comment.
In a September 3 statement from the diocese, press secretary Kathy Spangler says that the concerns around the letter — which, until now, had not been published — is what led the diocese to act with caution.
“Because it was apparent that publicity around the Fr. Nowak investigation might lead to the publication of a letter written by Bishop Malone’s Secretary, Fr. Ryszard Biernat, to a seminarian, Bishop Malone suggested that Fr. Biernat take a personal leave of absence from his assignment as the Bishop’s Secretary and Vice Chancellor. Bishop Malone’s motivation for this suggestion was in the hope that such a move might avoid embarrassment to Fr. Biernat and the diocese,” said the statement.
In addition to raising questions about the nature of their relationship, the letter also seems to complicate Bojanowski’s stated reasons for his departure from the seminary and further muddles Malone’s record in the diocese.
Malone calls release of secret recording ‘breach of confidence’
As Malone sought to prevent news of this correspondence from becoming public, Biernat secretly recorded private conversations he had with the bishop, which were released by WKBW on September 3. In the exchange, Malone expresses fear that the surrounding controversy could lead to his forced resignation if the letter became public, calling it “a disaster.”
During the press conference on Wednesday, Malone said he felt betrayed by his priest secretary, calling his actions “a serious breach of confidentiality.”
“I felt like I was hit by a bolt of lightning, emotionally. It was the last thing in the world I ever expected or anticipated in my relationship with Father Ryszard. That’s all I can say. I was just stunned and dismayed by it. I just never saw it coming,” he told reporters.
However, he reiterated Biernat was still a priest in good standing, and said he had no evidence that Biernat and Bojanowski had an inappropriate relationship, refusing to classify the leaked letter as being of a “love letter,” although he admits many other people have come to that conclusion.
Despite calls for resignation, no investigation into Buffalo diocese
For over a year Malone has been engulfed in crises after a former secretary leaked diocesan files showing Malone had kept priests accused of abuse in ministry. On Wednesday, Malone’s own congressman, Brian Higgins, repeated calls for Malone’s resignation, saying the bishop could no longer hide behind his “public relations machine.”
Malone said Higgins is “welcome to his opinion,” but said it was “interesting that he feels it is okay for him as a politician to tell a religious figure to step down, but if I as a religious figure, told a politician to step down, we would hear all about the separation of church and state. True?”
Despite continued questions over Malone’s leadership, no formal investigation into Malone has been triggered by the new norms for bishop accountability.
In June 2019, the U.S. bishops voted to enact new standards for bishop accountability where the metropolitan archbishop of the province would be responsible for overseeing cases of investigation into other bishops of the diocese, modeled on new Vatican guidelines issued in May known as Vos Estis Lux Mundi.
In response to Crux’s request for comment, a spokesman for Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York, Malone’s metropolitan archbishop, said that such procedures had not been enacted.
“Neither the Nuncio [papal ambassador] nor the Holy See have asked, to date, for Cardinal Dolan to take any action regarding Bishop Malone and Buffalo,” said Joe Zwilling.
“He has been following the situation there closely, since, for a year, some thoughtful clergy and lay leaders have been in touch with him about it. He has also benefited from frequent contact with Bishop Malone.”
On Wednesday, the bishop said he was in contact with Dolan, as well as the papal representative to the United States, French Archbishop Christophe Pierre.
“They have neither said you must stay, nor you must leave. And I know for sure they are not unaware of all the news around here; but so far, apparently, I would like to think they are trusting in my good will and my intention and my capacity working with other people to lead us forward,” Malone said.
Despite the repeated calls for his resignation, Malone once more said he planned to stay in office until at least 2021, when he turns 75.
“I’m here because I feel an obligation as the one who was sent here to lead this diocese, to carry on, and once again, if I thought that the majority of Catholic people in particular were calling for my resignation, that would be a different story,” he said. “But I don’t feel that. I go out to parishes and schools all the time for visits. I am always well received when I go … I do feel enough support, honestly, to continue on.”
Follow Christopher White on Twitter: @cwwhite212
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