Without Siobhan O’Connor, the Diocese of Buffalo may have pulled off one of the greatest cover-ups in the history of the Catholic Church.
“I am a very ordinary person and I found myself in rather extraordinary circumstances and the way I look at it is, I was the right person in the right place at the right time, and God gave me the strength to do the right thing,” she said.
O’Connor served for three years as Buffalo Bishop Richard J. Malone’s personal secretary. She's deeply religious and once studied to become a Catholic nun. But while working at Malone's side, she began to see the ugly underbelly of how the diocese handled sexual abuse.
She went public earlier today as the key whistleblower and source in 7 Eyewitness News’ three-part investigation into Malone’s handling of sexual abuse, telling the legendary news program “60 Minutes” that she felt morally compelled to provide key documents describing a cover-up of allegations under Malone's watch.
Before the airing of the “60 Minutes” story, O’Connor explained to 7 Eyewitness News that the seeds for her actions were planted in March, when the diocese announced a settlement program for victims of sexual abuse.
The diocese was so unprepared for the wave of allegations that she said she began taking phone calls from victims -- many who had waited years for justice from the church.
“And then I began to be attached to these people,” she said. “I mean, they shared their lives with me and I cried with them and I cared about them.”
Publicly, Bishop Malone said he wanted victims to come forward. But O'Connor said a hotline created by the diocese rang to an empty office in Cheektowaga -- manned remotely by a part-time employee.
After waiting weeks for a return call, O'Connor said victims began showing up at the chancery to tell their stories. O’Connor said she listened to one man’s story in a supply closet because the diocese had set aside no space to hear the victims.
“He told me that his wife had died a few years ago and he hadn’t even told her, and he shared what he had endured,” she said. “I was really overcome in that moment because you can see how raw that pain is...And I wished I could do more for him.”
O’Connor was moved to write a newspaper opinion piece in June, where she said victims “deserved compassion, not criticism.”
“I remember finding out after the fact that Bishop Malone was not pleased with the article I wrote because he said it was not supportive enough of him...It was overly supportive of the victims,” she said.
She added, “I was told by another member of senior staff that I had an inordinate sympathy for the victims, and I don’t think that’s possible.”
But it was Malone’s handling of two accused priests that finally convinced her it was time to quit. She wrote in emails to the bishop that she was becoming “morally allergic” to her job.
“I already knew at that point that things were not self-correcting,” she said. “It wasn’t as if the diocese had just careened off the path and was righting itself. Things were not going in the right direction and I thought you were the one who might be able to help the most from the outside.”
That’s when she met with 7 Eyewitness News Chief Investigator Charlie Specht in an empty parking lot for the first of many secret meetings. She began to reveal a trove of documents that implicated Bishop Malone in the mishandling of sexual abuse allegations.
“I remember thinking that I would trust you with this information, that you would not treat it in a salacious manner,” she said. “I could tell you had great compassion for the victims and that you also had great respect for our church.”
Exposing the bishop’s actions was not a decision she came to easily.
“I devoted my life to working for him,” she said of Bishop Malone. “I knew him very well. He had invited me to his home. I had traveled with him. And yet I realized that sometimes you have to have a loyalty to something greater and an allegiance to the common good versus someone’s personal good. Especially when I thought about the survivors, I thought...I would be betraying them if I didn’t do something.”
The explosive information has led to calls for Bishop Malone to resign. On the advice of church lawyers, he called an emergency news conference three days after our story and admitted wrongdoing but refused to resign.
“By the end of it, I was in tears because it was just business as usual,” O’Connor said. “A task force, a new office, a new staff member, strengthening the code of conduct. There’s nothing wrong with the code of conduct. It needs to be enforced.”
“There were so many things he could have done, but he didn’t,” she added. “Instead, they locked down those files, and it went just to that, ‘Protect the diocese, protect the bishop.’”
Sources say those aggressive moves are one reason the FBI has launched a criminal investigation into the diocese. O’Connor feels the scrutiny is a long time coming but knows it will take a toll on her former colleagues.
“I think that I’m going to lose a lot of friends because of this, because I brought pain upon them,” she said, holding back tears. “I brought dark days to the Catholic Center.”
O'Connor was ready to pay the price for speaking truth to the most powerful institution on Earth -- but said she now feels at peace for standing up.
“I remember thinking, even if they put me in jail, at least in jail, I would have a clear conscience,” she said. “But I would have been imprisoned by regret for my whole life if I didn't do this. So in a certain sense, as much as I did it for the survivors, and for our diocese and our community, I did it for myself, too. Because I couldn't have walked away and lived with myself. So I was really compelled to do this, in many respects...for my own soul.”
Bishop Malone declined to comment for this story. O’Connor is now represented by Boston attorney Mitchell Garabedian, who helped uncover the clerical abuse scandal in Boston and is considered one of the nation's top attorneys in the sexual abuse crisis in the Catholic Church.