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2018 Whistleblower Of The Year Interview Part I — Siobhan O’Connor

Posted  March 18, 2019

Here is Part I 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: Before we get started, we want to congratulate you on your win as Whistleblower of the Year.

Siobhan: Thanks very much to you and your readers for this honor. It was a privilege just to be nominated, let alone to have won. I think for most whistleblowers you never expect that this would be a situation you’d find yourself in, but then to receive such support has really been unbelievable, so thank you.

Whistleblower Insider: Can you tell us a bit about your background?

Siobhan: I was born and raised in Buffalo and have always been a very proud resident of Buffalo and member of our Buffalo Diocese. I went away to college in Northern Virginia and worked there for some years and then returned home to Buffalo where I was trying to find the right type of job. I held several executive assistant jobs and then an opportunity presented itself to be Bishop Malone’s executive assistant. As a Catholic, it was a dream come true! I thought I could use my professional skills and experiences to help my local Church so I was overjoyed. And that joy continued for quite some time after I started the job, until I began to realize some of the decisions that were being made by the Bishop [regarding sexual abuse allegations].

Whistleblower Insider: Do you think there is anything unique about you or your background that made it more likely you would someday come forward as a whistleblower?

Siobhan: Well, I will say that I was always very impassioned by injustice whenever I would witness it or read about it. I loved history from a young age and that was my major in college. Even as a kid I can remember reading about, for example, the Trail of Tears and just being so impassioned about it and wanting to go back and right that wrong. My family would laugh and say, “Oh what’s Siobhan fired up about now – it probably happened 200 years ago.” I definitely have always taken matters of injustice very seriously and in that regard my family wasn’t entirely surprised that I did this. They were just shocked and saddened that the circumstances existed that would require such action.

Whistleblower Insider: Was there a particular moment when you realized you had to speak up or had you been considering it for a long time?

Siobhan: I would say it was kind of a slow boil. I was starting to collect documentation in March and April [of 2018] and to be honest I was doing that almost as a mental health check because I would be seeing and hearing things that just seemed so outrageous. I would think “Well, I’ll just hang on to this and I can look at it again later to make sure I’m not imagining things.” But then I started to realize that I was accumulating a lot of documentation. And at the same time, I was seeing the impact the media was having. If a media inquiry came in about a certain priest, that priest would be put on administrative leave, whereas previously he was being allowed to remain in ministry. I was seeing the impact from the outside at the same time that I was trying to correct things inside. And I was beginning to realize that I might need to look to extraordinary measures to try to correct the situation as best I could.

When Charlie Specht, the investigative reporter I ended up working with, inquired about a particular priest, it took less than a week for Bishop Malone to take action. I was stunned because we had been trying to get the Bishop to take action for almost a year [with regards to the same priest]. I was shocked at how quickly a media inquiry resulted in action and that was probably the moment when I thought I’m going to do this; I’m going to work with that journalist to help get things turned around.

Whistleblower Insider:  When was the first time you went somewhere with your concerns?

Siobhan: In early March, the Diocese started an Independent Reconciliation and Compensation Program and that was really when everything started and brave survivors began coming forward. One particular survivor held a press conference that was kind of a watershed moment. During those first few weeks it was very chaotic in the Chancery; there were all these calls from survivors coming in. A lot of the procedures that were in place were not adequate for the response that was received. So there was sort of a general commiseration of “Oh my gosh how are we going to handle this?” I was very concerned about how the survivors were being treated.

I shared some concerns with a few of my closest colleagues and I did bring several of my concerns directly to Bishop Malone. I thought that was appropriate because I had a good working relationship with him where he would ask for my input or be willing to hear it. I noticed that in this situation, with these cases and related matters, my input was not requested and was not well received so I started to realize that I could no longer go to him as I normally would. He would just placate me and tell me not to worry about the things that distressed me. So I talked to some close colleagues and to be honest I talked a lot to God. Many of these matters were sensitive and I couldn’t speak of them to most people; I began to rely on God in a deeper way because I knew I needed guidance. I was and am so grateful for God’s guidance and grace. I knew I had to do something and some of the normal avenues weren’t available to me.

Whistleblower Insider: What were you thinking about when you were blowing the whistle and going through everything?

Siobhan: I brought my concerns about one particular case to Bishop Malone very directly and repeatedly and I was really hoping he would do something. This was back in March of last year and at that time I definitely wasn’t thinking of becoming a whistleblower. I would have never even used that term. But I wanted Bishop Malone to take some action because even a little bit of action on his part would have been a sign for hope: “Maybe this is going to get better.” But when his response was the same old thing saying, “Everything is fine – don’t worry about it. We’re handling it.” But that was clearly not the case and it kept going on; there was no urgency to attend to some of these matters. Then when the list of priests’ names was released and there were only 42 priests on that list, I knew how incredibly low that number was. I began to realize that unfortunately change wasn’t going to come from the inside. I knew that pressure needed to be brought from the outside.



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