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Whistleblower says Buffalo diocese did not disclose priest abuse reports

Bishop Richard Malone of Buffalo, N.Y. (CNS photo/Tyler Orsburn)

A former Church employee said she leaked diocesan documents because when the Buffalo diocese addressed sexual abuse allegations it seemed primarily concerned with protecting the reputation and assets of the Church.

A local media investigation published Aug. 22-23 revealed confidential diocesan documents indicating that Bishop Richard Malone allowed priests to stay in ministry despite multiple abuse allegations made against them.

Siobhan O’Connor, a former executive assistant to Bishop Malone, told “60 Minutes” on Sunday that she decided to leak the internal diocesan documents mentioned in the report after an incomplete list of priests accused of abuse was published.

“Bishop Malone had agreed to release a list of 42 priests accused of sexually abusing minors,” according to the program. “But O’Connor knew there should be more names because she had seen the draft list that circulated between the bishop and diocesan lawyers … As they worked on the list, the bishop and his lawyers decided they would not reveal the names of accused priests still in ministry.”

The list, released March 20, “identifies diocesan priests who were removed from ministry, were retired, or left ministry after allegations of sexual abuse of a minor,” according to the diocese. It “also includes deceased priests with more than one allegation made against them.”

O’Connor said: “It was a very carefully curated list. And I– I saw all the– the lawyers coming in and out, and I was aware of the– the various strategies that were in place.”

“To my mind the overarching attitude seemed to be to protect the church’s reputation and her assets,” she added.

O’Connor worked as Malone’s assistant for three years, quitting in August, shortly after she leaked the personnel files to a local television station. That station’s report subsequently focused on two priests whose names were reportedly considered for inclusion on the publicly-released list of credibly accused clergy, but removed before publication. Both priests were in active ministry at the time of the list’s publication in March.

Among the cases which troubled her was that of Fr. Arthur Smith, who had been suspended from his parish by Malone’s predecessor in 2011, after complaints were made that he had shown signs of grooming and stalking students, and had inappropriate communications with one male student.

In November 2012, Bishop Malone returned Smith to ministry, as chaplain of a nursing home. There, two young adult men said they were touched inappropriately by Smith. The regional superior of the religious order running the nursing home wrote to Malone to report the complaints, and to say that the order was discontinuing Smith’s work there.

In 2015, Malone wrote in a letter to Vatican officials that Smith had groomed a young boy, refused to stay in a treatment center, faced repeated boundary issues, and been accused of inappropriate touching of at least four young men. However, in the same letter, Malone said that “On the basis of his cooperation in regard to regular counseling, I have granted Father Smith faculties to function as a priest in the Diocese of Buffalo.”

The same year, the bishop wrote a letter of approval for Smith to serve as a priest on a cruise ship, explicitly clearing him for work with minor children.

In 2017, Malone assigned Smith as a “priest in residence” at an area parish. The priest was suspended in 2018, after the diocese said it had received a new substantiated allegation of sexual abuse of a minor.

“Our previous bishop had removed him from ministry, so I always thought it was odd that Bishop Malone had reinstated him,” O’Connor told “60 Minutes.”

“When I explored his file more in-depth, that might have really been the moment when I knew that I had to do something with this information.”

Because the list of accused priests was substantially shorter than she believed it should be, O’Connor said, “I felt that instead of being transparent, we were almost being the opposite or– or half transparent. Here are the names that we would like you to know about, but please don’t ask us about the rest.”

“60 Minutes” also interviewed two clerics of the Buffalo diocese who are dissatisfied with how the local Church has handled allegations of sexual abuse: Fr. Robert Zilliox, who holds a licentiate in canon law, and Deacon Paul Snyder.

Bishop Malone declined to be interviewed by “60 Minutes,” and issued a statement about that decision Oct. 27.

The first reason, he said, is that child protection and victim reconciliation is occupying most of his time.

Second, he said, “it is clear to me and my staff that your roster of interviews did not include those who are aware of the full extent of the efforts of our Diocese to combat child abuse. Nor does it include those who urge me every day to stay the course and restore the confidence of our faithful.”