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Whistleblower Speaks About Former Buffalo Bishop

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

After mounting pressure over his mishandling of sex abuse cases, the Roman Catholic bishop of Buffalo, N.Y., Richard Malone, stepped down earlier this week. Bishop Malone announced his retirement in a letter to his diocese.

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

He said, in part, quote, "I have acknowledged on many occasions the mistakes I have made in not addressing more swiftly personnel issues that, in my view, required time to sort out complex details pertaining to behavior between adults," end quote. He resigned after the Vatican investigated allegations that he covered up claims of sexual abuse by clergy. The Vatican's office in Washington, D.C., said in a statement that Bishop Malone asked to retire early after he heard the results of that investigation.

GREENE: Now, Malone's actions initially came to light when his former executive assistant, Siobhan O'Connor, turned whistleblower and leaked files about abusive priests that Malone had concealed. I spoke with her following Malone's resignation. And we should note this story includes disturbing details that might not be appropriate for all listeners.

What is the first moment when you realized that something was terribly wrong here?

SIOBHAN O'CONNOR: I would say that the first moment, really, was Bishop Malone's reaction to Michael Whalen, the first survivor to come forward at the end of February of 2018. And it just so happened that Michael came forward and had a press conference two days before Bishop Malone was going to be having a press conference where he would be rolling out the diocese's reconciliation and compensation program for survivors.

And so here's this survivor two days before, and Michael Whalen is speaking about the abuse he endured and the effects on his life. And all Bishop Malone could say was, well, how did this Whalen fellow find out about my press conference? Someone must have leaked that information, and now he's going to go and ruin it. And he kept calling him this Whalen fellow. And he was acting as if this brave, courageous survivor was not just a nuisance but a menace.

GREENE: So you found this now-famous black binder of cases of alleged sexual abuse in the Buffalo diocese. And where did you even find that?

O'CONNOR: Well, you know, I was being a good assistant, and I was doing a deep clean when Bishop Malone and his priest secretary were away for a - actually, an out-of-country trip. And I thought, well, they're going to be gone for a little while. I should really tackle that vacuum closet. And it was in the third drawer of this - wooden drawers. I pulled some things to the side, and then there's this huge, over 300-page binder. And then, as soon as I opened it and started reading, I thought, my gosh, I shouldn't even be seeing this. And what is it doing in here? And it was obvious that the bishop wasn't keeping it there for proximity to consult it because it was covered by things. And I could tell right away that this had been hidden.

GREENE: So you knew what you were holding at that moment.

O'CONNOR: I did, yes. It was clearly the synopses of all of the abuse cases that had been lodged against the diocese. And it was presented to Bishop Malone a month after he was installed in 2012.

GREENE: Is there a case or something you saw or read in that binder that really has just always stayed with you?

O'CONNOR: Yes, there certainly are some cases that I know I'll never forget. There was the case of two brothers who were abused by the same perpetrator, the same priest. And they both tried to save each other from him, and they weren't able to - and cases like that, where you just know that, you know, you're reading it in this black and white text, but it just - I would always sometimes have to be careful that I wasn't going to cry on it because they're stories of such immense human tragedy.

And, you know, Bishop Malone thought of them as a liability. And I just thought of them as lives that had been shattered. And, you know, in many cases, some of the synopses would end by saying that the victim was no longer alive, that they'd taken their own life. And those cases absolutely stayed with me. And I could understand, reading the details, why that pain might have become too great.

GREENE: How hard was it to decide to become a whistleblower and leak this and report this about your diocese?

O'CONNOR: I've been a Catholic all my life. I've been a member of this diocese for that same time period. And I remember thinking that I was certain that this was necessary, that this truth had to come out for the good of our Catholic community. But I did struggle with the knowledge that I would be betraying my bishop. Certainly on a personal level, I remember thinking, this is going to impact my life and even my family's life. But then I remember thinking, but if I don't do something, it'll change my life in a far graver way. I could never move past this if I were to be aware of this as I was and walk away without doing anything or trying to do something. And I'm so grateful I did because I've had this lasting peace ever since then.

GREENE: I wondered if you faced backlash from anyone in the church or in your community.

O'CONNOR: Oh, definitely, yes. That's been difficult, especially from faithful Catholics, many of whom think that I've hurt the church, that I was airing the church's dirty laundry, that I was attacking the bishop. And really, I have no animosity for our former bishop in many respects. I was praying for him to do the right thing because I was hoping he was capable of it and willing to do it.

But I've learned that, you know, that backlash - the hate mail, the insults and the comments - they were difficult at first, but now I realize that those are really the words and the actions of people who are themselves hurting. They want to think of the church as holy and good, and the church can be. But unfortunately, in so many respects, it's become corrupted, and we have to root that out. And the only way is with the truth.

GREENE: What we understand from the Vatican offices in Washington, D.C., is that after learning that the Vatican had investigated all of this, Bishop Malone was allowed to retire early. But what do you think of that outcome?

O'CONNOR: Well, for me, that was yet another reminder that there's so little transparency within the hierarchy. The fact that they allowed him to use such a euphemistic and evasive term really speaks to the fact that they treat each other differently than the same case would be handled in the corporate public sector. So, yes, we're grateful that he's gone. But we all know so clearly what the circumstances were. And I felt that they tried to give him an out, essentially.

GREENE: I mean, you've talked about how devout you have always been. Has this affected your relationship with Catholicism?

O'CONNOR: It has in terms of my relationship with the church itself. Fortunately, I still have a very strong belief in and love of Christ. But in terms of the church he founded, I just simply believe that the church has strayed so far from what Christ intended.

GREENE: Thank you so much.

O'CONNOR: Thank you, David. I hope you have a great day.

GREENE: That was Siobhan O'Connor, who became a whistleblower in her diocese in Buffalo, N.Y. Now, we should say the Vatican has appointed Edward Scharfenberger, the bishop of Albany, N.Y., as the temporary administrator of the Buffalo diocese until a permanent replacement for Bishop Malone is named by Pope Francis. Scharfenberger says he will, quote, "make sure that the diocese continues to operate in a way that is accountable, responsible, transparent." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.