Bishop's former assistant talks about decision to share confidential documents
The woman who formerly worked as the executive assistant to Roman Catholic Bishop Richard Malone stood on a sidewalk across the street from her former workplace Tuesday morning, explaining her decision to secretly share private diocesan documents regarding clergy linked to alleged sexual misconduct. It was Siobhan O'Connor's first local appearance since her story aired on national news programs including CBS's 60 Minutes.
O'Connor worked directly under Bishop Malone in the Catholic Diocese of Buffalo's headquarters on Main Street from 2015 until August of this year, when she resigned her position. Before leaving her job, she had secretly gathered copies of confidential documents regarding the church's sex abuse scandal and forwarded them to WKBW-TV investigative reporter Charlie Specht. This past weekend, she appeared on 60 Minutes and interviewed with other national news outlets Monday morning.
After being introduced in Buffalo by other speakers, including her attorney, O'Connor opened her own remarks with a prayer. She then pointed to her former employer's offices across the street, noting that a fourth floor conference room window provided an unobstructed view of the corner where she was now standing. It's the same corner where others, starting with Michael Whalen in February 2018, shared tales of sexual abuse, allegedly by clergy.
"I was standing in that window and I remember I wanted to come over here," she recalled. "I wanted to shake his hand. I wanted him to know that at least one, and I hope more of us in that building, supported him."
Earlier this year, the Diocese of Buffalo released the names of 42 priests accused of sexual abuse. Records O'Connor leaked to Specht and then turned over to law enforcers suggest approximately 120 clergy appearing on a draft list. Nearly a dozen were eliminated from that list when the Diocese, according to Specht's report in September, deemed the accusations against them to lack merit.
O'Connor's attorney, Mitchell Garabedian, explained that because of an ongoing federal investigation they would not discuss details about the documents nor disclose any information she may have on accused priests who may be actively serving.
She admitted writing down thoughts as far back as spring that she chose not to share at that time, out of fear of internal retribution. O'Connor felt diocesan leaders were not doing enough to address claims and also disagreed with the notion that those reporting about the accusations were acting as enemies of the church.
She also spoke of the personal struggle to interview with a national news outlet but expressed gratitude to the 60 Minutes producer who, as she explained, was supportive and understanding about her emotions while wrestling with the decision to go public.
"It was not easy," O'Connor said. "Unfortunately, the greatest criticism that I received from my fellow Catholics - while it's a minority opinion - they will tell me that I shouldn't have gone to the enemy. I shouldn't have gone to the media. But I tried to do what I could from the inside and I couldn't. I knew this was the way action would be taken."
O'Connor defended local news reporters who have been following the scandal since February, saying they are not the "enemy" as portrayed by critics, including the bishop. She also thanked local reporters, recognizing that many are practicing Catholics, for not criticizing the entire church and then asked media to remain focused in that way.
"What's going on now is a tragedy but it is not the true church," she said. "I want to please ask you to continue to have that respectful manner, because the people of the church we do not abide by this. I appreciate that you are not attacking us."
O'Connor revealed she did attend Sunday morning Mass on the day her segment would be aired by CBS. She chose a Mass that would be less attended, she explained, because she simply wanted to attend a Mass before leaving for New York City for scheduled interviews and not be distracted.
When asked by WBFO about the reactions of those who have recognized her, she said most have been supportive. Even some clergy, according to O'Connor, have discreetly forwarded messages of support.
"I know that for them this is not just a job, this is their vocation. This is their life," she replied. "They're in a very difficult situation right now and I applaud those who are able to come forward and follow in the footsteps of Father Bob Zilliox, who's an amazing, amazing priest and human being and a true hero to me."
Reverend Robert Zilliox of St. Mary's Swormville Parish in Amherst was interviewed by 60 Minutes about the abuses he witnessed and how they were handled. Also appearing was Deacon Paul Snyder, also from St. Mary's Swormville, who earlier this year called on the bishop to resign his position. Neither appeared Tuesday with O'Connor in Buffalo.
Bishop Malone declined to be interviewed for the 60 Minutes story which aired October 28. In his written statement to the program, released on the diocesan website, he stated that "your roster of interviews did not include those who are aware of the full extent of the efforts of our Diocese to combat child abuse. Nor does it include those who urge me every day to stay the course and restore the confidence of our faithful."
Diocesan officials also released the following statement in response to coverage of the scandal: "Two stories aired on Sunday, Oct. 28, regarding the Diocese. Many have sought our comment about both. Therefore, we issue this statement and will provide information in the days ahead that will add perspective to the stories. For now, we simply observe that the material reported in the stories was incomplete, out of context and in some cases plainly inaccurate.
"We know that some clergy and lay people have chosen to speak their minds and publicize confidential documents about the current crisis in our diocese These individuals say that they acted according to their consciences. We take them at their word, as we did before. If they have any specific matters that they believe need to be addressed, we would appreciate that information.
"Please find our statement to "60 Minutes," in which we explained the reasons why Bishop Malone declined their invitation for an interview. We similarly had told WKBW that we had no comment on their story.
"People will make up their own minds once they have heard our response to these stories. For our part, at the Diocese of Buffalo, we intend to better utilize our platforms moving forward as a catalyst to share important information, especially about the abuse crisis. Those platforms include: our website, social media (Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram) and our monthly WNY Catholic newspaper. Several very positive changes are in the works to more effectively, transparently and actively communicate with the public."
Garabedian said his client has spoken to the world, spoken to Bishop Malone and spoken to Pope Francis through her gesture. He then renewed a call for Bishop Malone to step down.
"It's time for Pope Francis to instruct Bishop Malone to resign," he said. "We need truth. We need transparency. We need the criminals the perpetrators of clergy sexual abuse and the individuals who participated in the cover-up of clergy sexual abuse to resign, so that all can heal."
O'Connor stated her last conversation with Bishop Malone was tense, because she knew WKBW was about to release its report. She did not reveal her actions to Malone nor has she spoken to the bishop since leaving her position. While admitting she would understand if Malone would never want to speak to her again, she insists she does not hate the bishop and continues to care for and pray for him.
However, she shares the opinion that he should step down.
"Unfortunately, I believe his credibility has eroded to such an extent that I don't believe he can continue to lead us in this diocese," O'Connor said. "That's extremely painful to say."
O'Connor also suggests Auxiliary Bishop Edward Grosz should resign.
"We need a complete change in leadership here. I've seen it from the inside. Nothing is going to change of their own doing," she said.