2018 Whistleblower of the Year Interview Part II — Siobhan O'Connor
Here is Part II of our interview with Whistleblower Insider’s 2018 Whistleblower of the Year Siobhan O’Connor. Siobhan O’Connor was a devout, lifelong Catholic when she landed her dream job as the executive assistant to Bishop Richard J. Malone of the Diocese of Buffalo. In her own words, she was “overjoyed” to be working for her “beloved Church.” But the job “went from a dream to a nightmare in about three years.” During that time, O’Connor learned that the Bishop and diocese leadership had deliberately protected-and continued to protect-priests credibly accused of sexually abusing both children and adults. Siobhan ultimately blew the whistle by sharing Church documents with an investigative reporter. Here is how Ms. O’Connor details first-hand her experience as a whistleblower and her advice to other potential whistleblowers.
Whistleblower Insider: Have you experienced any backlash as a result of your whistleblowing?
Siobhan: Well, I learned a very important lesson pretty early on, which was never ever read online comments about yourself because there are just some comments that you don’t need to see. People can be cruel, and if they don’t understand your motivations, or if they’ve ascribed ulterior motives to you, their comments can be hurtful. And I never wanted this to be about me. I wanted the focus to be on all the brave survivors I so admire and respect, and on the Church I still love and want to see renewed. So it was really hard when all of a sudden the attention – whether negative or positive – was on me.
I think the backlash that has been the hardest is that which comes from faithful Catholics, especially in our Diocese, because these are the people whom I live amongst and worship with. And the most frequent criticism I’ve heard is that I aired the Church’s dirty laundry and that I hurt the Church. Whenever I have an opportunity to speak to that criticism, I always tell people that the Bishop and the Diocese weren’t cleaning up the dirty laundry. They had it on spin cycle. They weren’t cleaning this up and I dearly wish that they had. I don’t think of my actions as having hurt the Church – I wanted to help the Church! I wanted necessary changes to be made. I wanted the people of our diocese to know the truth and for the survivors to be respected and vindicated. I wish people could understand what it was like being in my situation and seeing what I saw. But some people are just not able to accept the full gravity of what we’re dealing with so I think it’s a defense mechanism to say “Well, she just wanted to hurt the Church,” when nothing could be further from the truth.
Whistleblower Insider: Has there been anything about your experience(s) that has been particularly rewarding?
Siobhan: It’s been incredible to realize just how much people do love their faith, do love the Church, and to see so many of my fellow Catholics locally and nationally stepping up and saying “This is not the Church we love – this is leadership that has failed us.” It’s been so inspiring to see people step up. People are not going to let this return to business as usual. They are going to advocate for change that is desperately needed and that’s been really beautiful to witness. The other thing that’s been really overwhelming is the outpouring of support from survivors of clerical sexual abuse. I’ve been talking about this for quite a few months now and I still get emotional when I talk about the survivors because of what these brave people have suffered. Having been able to communicate with many of them, you just don’t forget their stories. And to have been able to be part of this movement for change and for healing for them has been the greatest privilege of my life.
Whistleblower Insider: Have you seen any positive changes as a result of your efforts that has encouraged you?
Siobhan: About a week after the 60 Minutes episode aired, Bishop Malone held a press conference and released a much longer list of priests’ names. I remember thinking it was really sad that Bishop Malone had the opportunity to have the Diocese come clean last March, but instead he put out a list with only 42 names on it. It took a national broadcast to get him to revisit the list and include so many names that were missing. I have also seen individual parishes, especially those that have been most afflicted by abusive priests, really coming together to begin the healing process and to make sure this doesn’t happen again. It may be a longer road ahead than we would like, but we know we’re moving in the right direction, and I do sense hopefulness from people.
Whistleblower Insider: If you could go back, would you do anything differently?
Siobhan: Well, I would absolutely do it again. The spiritual, emotional and psychological weight that lifted off of me was just immense. I remember thinking nothing could be done, in terms of retaliation from the Bishop or the Diocese, that would be worse than knowing I did nothing. So I would absolutely do it again. As far as changes, I think there were certain things that I said or did last fall that were misconstrued or misunderstood so I would be clearer about those things if I could do it again.
Whistleblower Insider: Based on your experience, is there any advice you would like to share for potential whistleblowers that may be unsure of what they should do?
Siobhan: I would say that you should really try to document everything you can. Even if it’s just email threads or your own notes. Even something that might not seem particularly consequential. You need as much proof as you can get. When it’s literally in black and white on the institution’s letterhead, there is a lot less they can do to try to get out of being held accountable. I would also say that it’s important to protect yourself as best you can, whether with legal counsel, or even just personal support.
- 2018 Whistleblower of the Year Interview Part I — Siobhan O’Connor
- 2018 Whistblower of the Year Candidate — Church Abuse Whistleblower Siobhan O’Connor
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