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2018 Whistleblower of the Year Goes To... Siobhan O’Connor

Posted  February 11, 2019

The votes are in, and Whistleblower Insider’s 2018 Whistleblower of the Year is 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.

She first became concerned in March, when the diocese announced an Independent Reconciliation and Compensation Program for abuse victims. As part of the program, the diocese released a list of 42 priests who had left the priesthood after facing abuse allegations. It also set up a hotline for victims. By all appearances, the diocese was finally doing the right thing, and it took pains to spread that narrative.

But O’Connor knew from internal emails and documents that the list was far from complete – at least 60 more priests should have been on it. She had seen a much longer draft list exchanged by diocesan lawyers and Bishop Malone, who ultimately decided to exclude accused priests still in the ministry and those accused only once.

O’Connor was alarmed by the missing names, particularly those of Fathers Art Smith and Fabian Maryanksi. Despite being accused by two young men of inappropriate touching in 2013 and receiving counseling after repeated contact with an eighth-grade boy two years prior, church records showed that Bishop Malone recommended Father Smith for a job as a cruise ship chaplain. The recommendation stated that the Bishop was “unaware of anything in his background which would render him unsuitable to work with minor children.” Similarly, although Father Maryanski had been accused of sexual contact with a minor in the 1980s, records showed that the church omitted him from the list because the diocese’s “full knowledge of the case” would “require an explanation.”

O’Connor was also disturbed by the diocese’s treatment of victims. Despite its name, the victim hotline was “very cold.” In its first three weeks, calls were sent to an abandoned office and directed to a voicemail system answered by a single part-time employee. Victims began showing up at the diocese office to share their stories. O’Connor listened.

After hearing these stories and witnessing the Bishop’s feigned transparency, O’Connor quit her job and shared church records with a local investigative reporter. Since then, the story has been featured on 60 Minutes, and both the FBI and local U.S. attorney’s office have begun investigations.

Although some fellow Catholics have questioned O’Connor’s decision to go to the media instead of church hierarchy, O’Connor hoped to protect existing and potential victims and believed the media “would have the most direct impact.” She was also concerned that internal reporting would cause the truth to get stuck in “a kind of episcopal bureaucracy” with a questionable track record.

O’Connor struggled with her decision to speak out. She suffered from insomnia, crying spells, and even a panic attack. Ultimately, she “acted out of love for the survivors, my diocese, my community and my Church.” As she told 60 Minutes, “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.” As in years past, competition for the title of Whistleblower of the Year was fierce.  Ms. O’Connor faced off against several commendable nominees, including:

  • Cambridge Analytica Whistleblower Christopher Wylie – the 24-year-old Canadian tech whiz created “Steve Bannon’s psychological warfare tool” and then came clean to reveal the destabilizing and destructive force he had created;
  • The Center for Investigative Reporting and Reveal – CIR’s investigative reporting has led to civil and criminal investigations, inspired the enactment of new laws and policies, spawned community action, and changed lives;
  • Dr. Christine Blasey Ford – a California psychology professor, who publicly accused Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh of sexual assault. Ford knew tremendous backlash would come, but she spoke up anyway. And millions of Americans heard truth in her testimony; and
  • Child Detention Whistleblowers Dr. Pamela McPherson and Dr. Scott Allen – Department of Homeland Security medical consultants, Drs. Pamela McPherson and Scott Allen, wrote a detailed report to the heads of the U.S. Senate’s Whistleblower Caucus outlining their findings that immigrant children separated from adult family members and held in government facilities are exposed to serious harms, including “a lifetime of increased risk of. . . anxiety, depression, PTSD, and poor physical health.”

All of the nominees received their fair share of the votes-well-deserved recognition for their courageous and selfless efforts to stand up for what they believed was right. In the end, however, none could match the outpouring of support for Ms. O’Connor.

So congratulations to Siobhan O’Connor, 2018 Whistleblower of the Year. We hope that her resolve in speaking truth to power and contributing to greater transparency despite significant personal cost, as well as the courage demonstrated by all our nominees, inspires more ordinary people to speak up in the face of injustice and demand accountability from those in power.

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