As It Happens

Whistleblower slams early retirement for N.Y. bishop accused of sex abuse cover-up

The resignation of a prominent New York bishop at the heart the diocese's sex abuse crisis is "not a victory," says whistleblower Siobhan O'Connor.

Bishop Richard J. Malone of Buffalo stepped down voluntarily on Wednesday

Bishop Richard J. Malone of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Buffalo, N.Y., has stepped down voluntarily amid allegations he covered up or mishandled sex abuse accusations in the church. (Gregory A. Shemitz/Reuters)

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The resignation of a prominent New York bishop at the heart of the diocese's sex abuse crisis is "not a victory," says whistleblower Siobhan O'Connor.

Bishop Richard J. Malone of Buffalo, who has been accused of covering up or mishandling the abuse of dozens of minors by priests in his diocese, admitted no wrongdoing when he stepped down voluntarily on Wednesday, two years before his scheduled retirement.

The Vatican said in a statement that Pope Francis has accepted Malone's request for an "early retirement."

"It's really not a victory. It feels more like a necessity," O'Connor told As It Happens host Carol Off. "It's disappointing that he chose to exit in that way, but I must say it's not surprising,"

From 'right-hand girl' to whistleblower

O'Connor used to be Malone's executive assistant, until she turned whistleblower in an explosive 2018 interview on CBS's 60 Minutes.

"I used to be Bishop Malone's right-hand girl and I initially was a huge fan of his. I certainly respected him and even admired him," she told Off.

"But I began to recognize that he wasn't the man I thought he was and that what he was saying publicly did not match what he was doing internally."

Whistleblower Siobhan O'Connor was Malone's executive assistant. (Submitted by Siobhan O'Connor)

The turning point for O'Connor came when Malone publicly released a list of 42 priests facing credible allegations of sexual assault, many of them dating back decades. 

But O'Connor had a copy of his original draft list, which was 17 pages long and contained more than 100 names.

Two of the accused priests Malone chose not to name were still active in the church, she said. One of them, she says, got a ringing endorsement from Malone, despite being accused of molesting a young boy. 

"For me, I just could no longer abide by it," she said. "Especially when it came to active priests, I felt that it was a matter of public safety and awareness for our community."

Malone denies wrongdoing 

Malone resisted calls to step down for years, and has consistently denied the accusations against him.

Upon stepping down, he issued a three-page statement, saying the church would be "better served by a new bishop who perhaps is better able to bring about the reconciliation, healing and renewal that is so needed."

"Some have attributed this to my own shortcomings, but the turmoil also reflects the culmination of systemic failings over many years in the worldwide handling of sexual abuse of minors by members of the clergy," the statement reads. 

"It is important to note that during my tenure, there has not been a single priest of this Diocese ordained in the past 30 years who has had an allegation of child sex abuse substantiated."

Bishop Edward Scharfenberger addresses the media in Buffalo N.Y., after being appointed by the Vatican to serve as apostolic administrator for the Buffalo Diocese until a replacement bishop is chosen. (Jeffrey T. Barnes/The Associated Press)

Malone said he had made mistakes in not addressing what he described as personnel issues more swiftly and that he was retiring early voluntarily, but would continue to live in Buffalo.

The Vatican said Malone would be temporarily replaced by Bishop Edward B. Scharfenberger of Albany, N.Y.

Pressure from the media 

O'Connor said she made the decision to take her story to the media because negative news coverage seemed to be the only thing that got through to Malone.

"The media was really creating the most change within the diocese," she said. "The bishop would react to an impending story or the threat of a story."

Her interview with CBS was one of many such stories to come.

In September, Buffalo TV station WKBW aired leaked recordings in which Malone expresses hesitancy to remove a parish priest accused of misconduct.

In the recording, he calls the accused priest a "sick puppy" and worries what the story will do to his own career.

"People were shocked and, I think, in many respects, disgusted by it," O'Connor said. "I think those recordings really shed a great amount of light on his true character, which was very unsettling for everyone here in Buffalo."

Pope Francis accepted Malone's request for an early retirement. (Remo Casilli/The Associated Press)

The tide turned against Malone. A poll by the the Buffalo News in September showed that 86 per cent of local Catholics wanted him gone. 

A month later, the church sent Brooklyn Bishop Nicholas DiMarzio to conduct a "non-judicial" investigation into Malone's handling of abuse allegations.

But DiMarzio soon faced a scandal of own, accused in a November Associated Press story of sexually assaulting an 11-year-old boy in the 1970s. He has denied the allegations.

'This isn't how Christ wanted it to be'

O'Connor said she believes it was the onslaught of media coverage and the ensuing public outrage that forced Malone to finally step down. 

But the story is far from over. The Buffalo diocese is at the centre of an FBI investigation, and is facing more than 200 lawsuits related to alleged abuse.

"I do hope that those cases will be brought to fruition and that there will be healing and some closure for survivors after all that they've endured," O'Connor said.

This whole ordeal has caused her to lose trust in her church as an institution, she said, but not her faith her God.

"I still believe in him and love him. But it has really shown me a part of the church that I certainly never wanted to know about," she said.

"But I'm grateful to have that awareness because, for me, it is just a motivation to fight for true change in the church. Because I know that this isn't how Christ wanted it to be."

Written by Sheena Goodyear with files from The Associated Press. Interview with Siobhan O'Connor produced by Chris Harbord