Peter Jesserer Smith is a staff reporter for the National Catholic Register. He covered Pope Francis’s historic visit to the United States in 2015, and to Jerusalem and the Holy Land in 2014. He has reported on the Syrian and Iraqi refugee crisis, including from Jordan and Lebanon on an Egan Fellowship from Catholic Relief Services. Before coming on board the Register in 2013, he was a freelance writer, reporting for Catholic media outlets as the Register and Our Sunday Visitor. He is a graduate of the National Journalism Center and earned a B.A. in Philosophy at Christendom College, where he co-founded the student newspaper, The Rambler, and served as its editor. He comes originally from the Finger Lakes region of New York State.
A lifelong, devout Catholic from Buffalo, Siobhan O’Connor found herself living a disciple’s dream: working with her bishop to help build up Christ’s Church in their diocese. Three years later, having seen how the diocese and Bishop Richard Malone dealt with sexual abuse, O’Connor became a whistleblower in the chancery, leaking a trove of documents. The story was reported by Buffalo’s 7 Eyewitness News investigative journalist Charlie Specht, and then went national with 60 Minutes.
The Diocese of Buffalo is now under state and federal investigation, and Bishop Malone has fought calls for his resignation, saying his leadership is needed for the diocese’s stability.
In this interview with the Register, Siobhan O’Connor, 37, discusses why she became a whistleblower, her own Catholic faith, and the role of the laity in holding bishops accountable.
Siobhan, Bishop Malone has had meetings with the priests, deacons, and lay ministers of the diocese, and a Nov. 5 press conference that revealed more predator priests in the clergy than the 42 originally reported back in March. Do you believe the diocese is now honestly addressing its handling of sex abuse following your leak of the chancery documents?
Well, I would say that it’s definitely doing so much more effectively than they were in the past, and as much as they might say that they were planning to do this of their own volition, the timing would suggest that it was in response to 60 Minutes episode, and the fallout from it.
And to be honest, it was a relief for me to see those new names be released, because they were not new names to me.
So in many respects it was a relief that they’re finally being held at least somewhat more accountable.
What did you make of the decision not to release the names of deceased priests who had only one allegation of sexual abuse against them?
Well, I certainly have respect for the dead, and especially in this month of November, when we remember the holy souls, and all those who’ve gone before us. So while I understand why they may have made that category, as I call it, I also know that many times when an abuser’s name is released, more victims come forward, and that’s just the sad truth of it. And I also know, having focused on the survivors, the thought of “it’s just one victim,” minimizes the fact that one person was given a life sentence of recovering from child sex abuse. So I understand that that’s a difficult decision to make, but having spoken to so many survivors, I don’t agree with the decision, especially if those claims are substantiated.
When did you come to the decision that the wider Church and the public needed to know about how the Diocese of Buffalo’s bishop and chancery were handling sexual abuse cases?
Well, I would say that it was a twofold decision. First and foremost, I recognized from the inside that no changes were being made, or proper actions being taken, unless there was this external pressure — most frequently from the media. And I mean that I saw direct change. They were going in one direction, and then there’d be an email from Charlie [Specht, Buffalo’s News 7 investigative reporter] and they would all of a sudden take the proper course of action.
So seeing that so dramatically and consistently was a very powerful lesson for me. And at the same time, I was seeing how the bishop and the lawyers and everyone else were projecting this narrative to the public, to our diocese, that, “oh everything is going well” and “we’re doing all the right things.”
It was a very positive PR strategy, and yet I knew what was really going on the inside. That disconnect, that dichotomy, was increasingly painful to witness, and I just began to realize that no matter what I did on the inside, it simply wasn’t going to have the effect that was necessary.
What made you decide that you needed to go to the local media rather than someone like the papal nuncio?
That’s a good point. I remember thinking that I absolutely wanted the hierarchy of the Church involved, and also law enforcement. But when I thought about law enforcement investigations, I knew that those were not speedy processes, and the Pennsylvania grand jury report took two or three years. So I remember thinking that the media would have the most direct impact.
The Apostolic Nuncio, if I went to him, then he would of course circle back with Bishop Malone, which is appropriate. But I knew that Bishop Malone had already been sending him and other leaders such as Cardinal [Seàn] O’Malley and Cardinal [Timothy] Dolan, his version of the events. So, I was worried that it was going to get stuck in a kind of episcopal bureaucracy. And I felt that more immediate change needs to occur, and I believed the media would be able to effect that.
So what evidence did you have that the episcopal bureaucracy wouldn’t pursue a “trust but verify” approach to Bishop Malone’s narrative — that they would just accept it?
Well, I didn’t necessarily think that they wouldn’t engage in such a process. But again, I felt that that would be an unnecessarily lengthy process. To be honest, I was thinking of the survivors and how they had already waited so long for justice. And then in March, they were given partial justice with the truncated list, and I was concerned that our diocese needed to have an accounting and a reckoning that would happen more expediently. So it wasn’t so much that I didn’t trust that process. I was a little bit skeptical of certain aspects of it, but I just knew that it would be a lengthy one.
You describe yourself as a faithful Catholic. Can you tell me more about your Catholic background, and how your faith affected you in this decision to expose what was taking place in the chancery?
I’m grateful to have been born and raised Catholic. I was homeschooled from kindergarten until my first day at college, at Christendom College. So I had a very strong love for our faith and what’s so important for me is that I would consider myself a joyful Catholic — maybe not as much joy these days — but always a grateful one. And so deeply grateful for our faith.
One of the more consistent criticisms that I’ve received from fellow Catholics — although vastly outweighed by support — but the critiques I’ve heard are, “Why would you air the Church’s dirty laundry?” “Why would you shame the Church?” “Why would you expose the Church?” And those are important criticisms to acknowledge and to reflect upon. And yet, I really feel as though it was my love for the Church that was telling me, “This is not the Church as it should be, as it could be, as it will be.” And I felt that unfortunately, because of the toxic secrecy in our chancery and kind of that culture of silence, I felt that it was sadly best for the Church to have this truth exposed, because otherwise it was just going to trickle out.
We were seeing it happen all this summer, week after week there would be more priests named and it was just this increasingly painful process. I felt that the people of God, who are the Church. I felt that they deserve to know the truth, and to stop the bleeding of this trickle of information coming out of the chancery.
How did your experience talking with survivors affect you?
That was absolutely the most impactful experience of the last eight months. I began speaking with survivors almost immediately after our diocese instituted the Independent Reconciliation and Compensation Program (IRCP). And my conversations with [survivors] were just incredibly powerful and painful. And it’s still, still now it’s very emotional to think about. And I felt as though this process that the diocese had put in place was in many ways instead of causing them to feel support and encouragement, they were actually feeling frustration and confusion. So that was another layer of my concern because I was speaking to these people who I so desperately wanted to help and I felt like the system put in place was not helping them.
How would you say that the system that was put in place was not helping them?
Well, first and foremost, the hotline that was established for victims to call in to was woefully inadequate and was not corrected before about a month’s time. So victims were calling into basically an answering machine in an unmanned office, and a part-time trained licensed social worker was taking those calls. That woman was doing a very good job, but she was facing a gargantuan task, that she was sometimes 90 calls delayed in those returns, and so that’s why people were calling me. I was not licensed or trained, but I was eager to offer them a compassionate ear. So that was the first major problem.
And then I also felt as though the IRCP itself was confusing for people, especially for those who did not see their abuser on the list, but had received a packet — the diocese sent out these IRCP packets to various victims of whom they were aware. And so several of them, many of them would call and say, “I got this packet inviting me to participate, but my abuser’s name wasn’t on that list.” So that was again to me, it was another reminder that some victims were being empowered by that list as Bishop Malone said, but others were being treated the opposite way, where they were confused and upset, and experiencing more trauma instead of a decrease in trauma.
What led you to become Bishop Malone’s executive assistant in the first place?
I had always been hoping to get into some kind of work for the Church here, for our diocese. And it was three years ago in July 2015, I heard from a priest friend that the bishop’s current executive assistant was going to be moving on. And he encouraged me to pursue the application for that job, and I did so.
They had been looking for about a four to six-week period for a replacement, and it just seemed to be one of those providential things where I applied, and they decided they wanted me to interview with the bishop. I was the only applicant to do a real face-to-face interview with the bishop, and he hired me on the spot.
We really clicked well and I was overjoyed to be working not only for our Church, but so closely with our bishop. To me it was the dream job at the time.
So clearly your dream job changed.
I know it’s so funny to think about this. It went from a dream to a nightmare in about three years.
What’s your feeling toward Bishop Malone now? He recently accused you of being contradictory between your correspondence to him and your public testimony.
That was very difficult for me last week. First of all, it was just a very strange statement that he released late at night in response to my press conference. Those messages that he now was broadcasting and publishing, those were personal messages. And I can understand that people might be confused.
I know Bill Donohue [president of the N.Y.-based Catholic League] accused me of being duplicitous, but I can tell you that, especially some of the messages that were included from 2016 and even 2017, I had a very different approach to this at the time. My mindset was entirely different.
Earlier this year, in February and March, I began to change the tenor of my emails towards Bishop Malone, because I did disagree so strongly with what he was doing. And I heard from my closest priest colleague at the chancery that Bishop Malone was aware of that change in tone, and that he had made note of it — that I was not as friendly in my emails; that I was much more just business and professional in my approach. And I felt that was appropriate because there was a change.
And yet, as I headed into July and August, knowing what I intended to do, I felt that I needed to be savvy about it, and not give him any, any reason to suspect me. So I was careful though in what I said. Especially in my final message to the Catholic Center, when I spoke of Bishop Malone’s “Sheen like eloquence” — that’s still very true. I spoke of his holiness. I did see him praying everyday and offering Mass reverently — none of that has changed. And so I hope people understand that you can still appreciate the good in someone, and recognize it, while also calling on them to make the necessary changes in the areas where you disagree with them. So I don’t think that that’s incongruous, because I do still care about him, and I pray for him deeply, because I want him to be the best he can for our diocese.
Speaking of Bill Donohue, he attacked your motives because you hired Mitchell Garabedian to defend you in any possible legal action. And then he also alleged you were going to speak at “a rally organized by anti church zealots.” How would you respond to that?
Well, thank you for letting me respond to that, because when I read it I was certainly frustrated and kind of flummoxed by his critique there.
First of all, I first learned of Mitchell Garabedian from the Oscar Award-winning movie Spotlight, which describes everything that happened in Boston [with the sex abuse scandal]. I know Bill Donohue said, “How would someone working for the Church even know who Mitch Garabedian is?” Well, I worked for the Church, and I saw his name on at least 40 of the IRCP claims that came in. He was representing some of our local survivors. So I was very much familiar with his work. And I also felt that he was so experienced that he would be able to give me not just legal advice, which to be honest, hasn’t been as much of an issue, but also just general counsel, because he’s very familiar with how these scenarios go.
I have not experienced any anti-Catholic animus, as Bill Donohue indicated, coming from Mitch. Certainly, he gets fired up about these issues because he has dealt with the survivors’ trauma for so long. He doesn’t hate the Church as far as I can tell.
And as far as that rally being filled with “anti-Church hating zealots, I actually believe that to be the opposite. They may be people filled with zeal, which is a good thing, but I have not gotten any sense that any of the organizers of participants hate the Church. If anything, we may hate what’s going on in the Church, and want and hope to work for change. But I haven’t gotten the sense that it’s against the Church at all. And if it were, I wouldn’t participate, because I do love the Church. I want to build her up, not bring her down. [Reporter’s note: O’Connor was present at the Silence Stops Now rally and day of prayer coinciding with the bishops’ meeting, but opted against giving a speech.]
Do you have confidence in the way that the Diocese of Buffalo has handled priests who are accused of sexual abuse of minors?
I have somewhat more confidence in those kinds of cases if they were to occur today. But in terms of how they handled previous cases, especially Father [Dennis] Riter, Father Maryanski, even some grooming issues with Father [Arthur] Smith, no. It seems as though if a decision was made in the past, Bishop Malone would abide by that. And even though he wanted to make us all think that he had changed all of those protocols, he had not, in fact, done so, and several of those priests were kept in ministry despite the diocese acknowledging that they knew the matters at hand, and didn’t do anything.
Can you tell me which ones in particular?
Ah, yes. Well, Father Riter, the priest who was reinstated in July despite having three minor victims ... as well as Father [Fabian] Maryanski, who was accused of statutory rape of a 15-year-old, but was allowed to minister until this May. And then also Father Art Smith, who had various boundary violations, including one with a minor, and then sexual assault of young men. So, it’s very disturbing that they all kind of got a pass because of who they knew. And it’s pretty obvious that nothing would have probably happened in their cases, if there hadn’t been pressure from the community.
With regard to Father Riter, Bishop Malone said that the review board found the allegations not credible. What do you make of that?
It was a very strange approach that the diocese took from the get-go. One of the most key documents in the case was a letter that a seminarian wrote back in the ’90s after witnessing the aftermath essentially of one of the abuses occurring, and Bishop Grosz vehemently denied that that letter had ever been sent or received. And yet I’ve spoken to the seminarian in question who says that he absolutely did document it right away, actually hand-delivered the letter, and then was basically railroaded out of our seminary because of his response to what he saw. [Reporter’s note: 7 Eyewitness News has a copy of the 1992 letter here].
Was this the seminarian’s own abuse or somebody else’s abuse?
That was somebody else’s abuse: a 6-year-old boy’s. But [the seminarian] said that he just absolutely had to make it known to the diocese. And that really kind of sent [the seminarian] down the rabbit hole of our chancery, and he’s still coming to terms with what happened to him.
In terms of the investigation that was done with Father Riter, it was just a very again strange situation. The diocese’s investigator would lose peoples’ phone numbers or forget key information. And he was actually literally contacting the journalist, Charlie [Specht], with whom I’ve worked, for information: “Do you have his phone number?” or “Can you just tell me this?” “I know you told me one time.”
It’s very strange to me that Charlie’s name is mentioned multiple times in the diocesan investigator’s report. So, I found that whole situation instead of giving you the sense of “Okay, you know, they really did this thoroughly, and I feel confident about the report,” I had even more questions after reading it.
What is troubling is that in the cases of Father Maryanski and Father Smith, the diocese seemed to decline to act because the victims of sexual abuse were adults (or wrongly presumed to be an adult in the case of the girl allegedly sexually abused by Father Maryanski). Are these cases indicative of the diocese’s approach to adult victims of sexual abuse?
Well, I truly believe that they don’t take those accusations and accounts — not that they don’t take them seriously, but they don’t have any true concern, based on how they’ve handled those incidents. I know that I’ve heard one of diocesan lawyers say there shouldn’t be the same kind of a zero tolerance policy towards priests who have committed sexual assault against adults, because the adults in question are able to defend themselves. And I would posit that predatory behavior by a priest against any human being, regardless of age, should absolutely be prosecuted to the fullest extent of Church and civil law, because it’s predatory behavior, it’s assault and especially knowing that the priests in question tended to go after vulnerable young men because in many cases, they had been grooming them, which is a form of abuse, too.
And yet the diocese and the bishop specifically, I mean, he said to me, “Well these cases are different, we handle them differently.” It’s always this “different” category they put it in so that they don’t have to really attend to it.
So there’s some reasoning for why a victim over 18 is different from a victim who is just a day shy of 18?
That’s the thing: There is no magic line that you cross, “Oh, yes, now I’m 18.” We all know that whether you’re 18 and a half, or 17 and a half, you’re still quite young. And even if you’re a 25-year-old male (which one of the victims was) depending on your circumstances, you can still be quite vulnerable. And I believe anybody would be vulnerable to that kind of situation, because if you trust the priest, and you’re expecting spiritual guidance or counseling, that’s the abuse of power there. And in that case, it really doesn’t matter how old you are, because, yes, you may be physically more capable of perhaps extricating yourself versus a child.
But that doesn’t mean that you haven’t been either taken advantage of, or assaulted: even if it’s brief, it still counts, because that person should still count. And that’s what I felt like was happening. The adult victims were being discredited, really, without having their story heard.
Have you had much extensive discussions with adult victims of abuse? Is there a general way you can describe the vulnerability that they’ve experienced from a priest and what the abuse did to them?
I have spoken to one in particular, who talked about how this was the first experience he had speaking with a priest outside of normal parish events, and that he was really looking forward to it, that he was going through some spiritual struggles at the time and was therefore particularly eager to meet with Father [Robert] Yetter in this case. He said there was a double effect of the assault: Not only was he stunned and staggered by this, but he also felt like spiritually it set him back.
Instead of receiving some counsel or guidance with those areas he was struggling in, now he had a whole new area to struggle in. And I think that’s a huge part of it, is that adults who are meeting with a priest very likely may be going to them because they’re struggling. And instead you end up with a whole new problem that you have to tackle, so, it’s compounding whatever issue that might have brought them to the priest in the first place.
Bishop Malone has claimed that he has done more than any other Buffalo bishop and that in a certain way, he feels unfairly blamed for the crisis and the cover-up. Do you think that’s accurate or what do you think his responsibility here is in this as compared to his predecessors?
I would say that certainly back in the ’80s and ’90s, there definitely were a greater preponderance of bad decisions being made. I think there’s a lot more reckoning in those decades, just because that’s when the abuse was occurring. But I also know, and Bishop Malone has mentioned this several times, too, that Bishop [Edward] Head and Bishop [Henry] Mansell, who were the bishops at the time, were also influenced by the guiding philosophy of the time — which was send the guys for an assessment, they’ll get a good report, then we get them back into ministry, but we’ll probably put them in the south towns or in the rural areas.
I feel as though those bishops clearly made horrible decisions that resulted in cycles of abuse, for which they will be culpable, but there was again that kind of ideology there that may have skewed their thinking. I can’t excuse it entirely, but we know that they weren’t alone in that.
So when it comes to Bishop Malone, I find that he is still culpable, though. Especially because he came from Boston, which was the epicenter of the previous abuse crisis in our Church, and yet, he likes to kind of have this feigned ignorance about certain things.
He read the black binder, but he forgot everything that was in it. He knew that there were these various cases going on, and he also never moved forward with adjudicating those cases in Rome, which would have been, you would think, the priority, especially for some of the greater abusers here who need to be removed from the clerical state.
Then more recently, some of those cases that were brought to light, especially Smith and Yetter, demonstrate that Bishop Malone wasn’t taking this seriously. I mean, the letter of good standing for Father Art Smith and the adulation he heaped upon Father Yetter — I’m sorry, but he was treating the abusers better than the abused.
One of the things I noticed in the documents is how absolutely expansive the knowledge is that the diocese has about anything regarding a priest. It’s hard to imagine another employer that has that much information on their employees. With all that knowledge the diocese have about their priests, why wasn’t something done earlier?
That’s really one of the greatest questions I have for Bishop Malone. He had multiple opportunities to make this right when he first got here and received that huge binder of pending litigation with over 200 pages of documentation. And in the years since, he had an opportunity to finally clean this up, and I know for a fact he wasn’t taking the state of the secret archives seriously enough. They were in chaos despite the overwhelming amount of information they contained; that information isn’t very valuable if it’s not accessible and organized.
Then when it came to this March, they hailed this as a long-awaited coming clean on the diocese’s behalf, to release the names, and it was so — discouraging and disappointing aren’t even adequate words. I was just completely beside myself.
Given all the information they had, they came out with 42 names? Now we know as of Monday’s press conference just how woefully inadequate that number was. I remember thinking [in March], “Why are you doing this? You’re making it worse for everyone. No one is served by half-truths or untruths.” And yet that’s all they were doing while at the same time hailing themselves as these heralds of transparency. That hypocrisy was really the worst of all.
Bishop Malone has resisted calls for his resignation, and says the diocese needs the stability of his leadership. Do you agree with him, or do you believe the bishop should still resign?
I know he has been saying, especially this week, that there would be a time of instability for our diocese and we wouldn’t be able to move forward, and that he’s working on other things while he’s here, in addition to attending to this scandal.
I’m sorry to say, and I mean that genuinely, but I still do believe that he should resign along with Bishop Grosz, our auxiliary, due to the absolute inept leadership they’ve shown and really in many respects how the bishop personally has responded to this information being revealed. For me, that was really a very important part of this, with how is he going to respond? And he has just responded with more secrecy, more smoke and mirrors, more spin machine, and I haven’t really sensed a genuine understanding of what he’s putting us through, in addition to the fact that his credibility has just eroded to the point where I don’t even think he has any left, at least with the laity, maybe some laity, but they’re now a minority.
Even other leaders within our community, Catholic and non-Catholic alike, there’s just no credibility there, and I think, based on how he’s responded to various steps of the scandal as we’ve moved throughout this year, I think that his actions have indicated that he’s not able to leave us through this. Yes, there may be some instability during a time of transition, but I just don’t think we can heal under his leadership.
Bishop Malone met recently with the priests, transitional deacons, then the permanent deacons, and then the laity. Have you had any feedback on how those meetings went and how people responded there?
It definitely seems as though the laity took it to the bishop a lot more vigorously than the clergy did, which in many respects is not a surprise. I think the clergy here are still kind of reeling from all of this. And they have certain fears and concerns of their own that may sadly prevent them from speaking out more strongly against the bishop.
I know that the laity Tuesday night were able to participate by virtue of being lay pastoral ministers of some kind. And I heard that there were a lot of great questions being posed, and that people really weren’t backing down in their questions to the bishop, which was great to hear about.
I would say that the clergy seems to be — I know how good they are and how much they’re struggling with this, so I really respect them greatly. But I do hope that they will be able to be more vocal in the future, because right now, it’s the laity who are most holding [the bishop] accountable.
Can you tell me anything about what is going on with Buffalo’s seminary and seminarians?
I know there is definitely more investigation needed into the seminary and especially regarding the potential pipeline of Colombian seminarians who might have been sadly brought to the seminary for very devious purposes. I talked to several priests who were in our seminary, and they said, “Oh, you know, we always thought that was a rumor, but now we’re thinking that maybe it wasn’t.”
A few of them were there when the Colombians were there, and certain things struck them as being a matter of concern.
So right now, from what I’ve heard, there’s a lot of kind of firsthand concerns and worries, and there’s the desire for there to be an investigation. And then the whole situation with Father Gotto, the president rector where he was saying that he just had always been planning on taking in the mental health break, and this is in the works for quite some time. And then, of course, the diocese had to come out and say, “No, he has been removed because of an allegation.”
So even that recently, there was still this deceitfulness going on. And everybody at the seminary seems to be on high alert. So that makes me realize that they, too, have secrets that they’re trying to preserve.
Who brought the Colombian seminarians into Buffalo?
That happened under Bishop Mansell primarily, back in the ’90s.
You became a whistleblower in the chancery after all the things that you saw. Do you believe that by bringing all this stuff to light that you’ve helped the Catholic Church?
I hope and pray that my actions have been helpful. I know that there may be disagreement on that and I certainly respect that, but I can only say that from what I was witnessing, from what I saw, especially, unfortunately, the greatest lesson I learned from the bishop this year was that he wasn’t doing the right thing until usually the media, but maybe the threat of law enforcement, unless there was an external threat of exposure, he simply wasn’t doing the right thing.
I really do believe that there’s a toxic secrecy that unfortunately fills so many of our nation’s chanceries and it’s amazing to me, looking back now, to see just how much the diocese has done since that information was leaked. That response to me is the greatest indication that this was a good thing to do, a painful and difficult thing to do, but a good thing because they’ve been forced now to reckon with their decisions.
The bishop has been forced to acknowledge the error of his ways. And on Monday they revealed more names, and more victims were able to have that validation. And, I do believe it was a good thing, but I could never say that it was something that I wanted to do. It was something I thought I had to do.
And one of the reasons I went to the journalist I did, Charlie Specht, is because I knew him to be a faithful Catholic himself who sent his kids to Catholic school. That was really important to me: to work with a journalist that shared my love and respect for the Church.
You’re going down to the rally and then the prayer for the bishops in Baltimore. What are you hoping to tell people when you’re there?
Well, I really want to try to use my experience to show that this is the time when the laity are really being called upon to stand up and respectfully hold our leadership accountable.
For quite some time, the laity haven’t really been fully cognizant of our very integral role in the church. We tend to be passive participants for the most part. Now people are realizing that we do have more autonomy than that and that we need to not just make our voices heard, but that we also need to be physically and vocally present in these matters. If we want the change, we’re going to have to work for it, and we’re also sadly going to have to demand it.
I really want to use this as a time to rally people behind this realization that the laity have a sacred duty here. It’s unfortunate that we’re being called upon because of the lack of credibility and accountability from our leaders, but now we have to literally watch and ensure that they’re going to do the right thing — not just more platitudes and more placating, but that they’re going to make definitive changes that we can observe and that we can see the good effects from.
This interview has been edited for clarity.
Peter Jesserer Smith is a Register staff writer.