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Editorial: Bishop Malone's ex-secretary displayed courage

It’s not just that the former administrative assistant to Buffalo Bishop Richard J. Malone was in the right place at the right time, though Western New Yorkers can be thankful that she was.

Even more significant, it’s that at great personal risk, Siobhan O’Connor followed her conscience and took steps to expose the bishop’s dissembling on sexual abuse by priests. That’s courage and, for it, she deserves the support of all in Western New York, regardless of their religion. This is a matter that goes beyond the church.

O’Connor is not alone in standing up for her faith, of course. Others are coming forward, too, also at personal risk. But none has had to worry that, in addition damaging their standing within the church, they could also face legal peril, in O’Connor’s case for providing copies of disturbing church documents to a reporter.

The diocese this week said it would not pursue legal action against O’Connor. But she knew that was a possibility before she acted, and she acted anyway. That’s courage.

She has now hired Boston attorney Mitchell Garabedian, who has represented many victims of priests and who was key in unraveling the cover-up of clergy sexual abuse in Boston. That’s wise.

Despite her fears, O’Connor, whose interview on CBS’ "60 Minutes" was broadcast on Sunday, believed she had no choice but to act. “Nothing they could do to me would be worse than my doing nothing,” she told The News.

In the end, she couldn’t abide the diocese not returning calls from people reporting they had been abused by clergy. It troubled her that Malone showed no empathy for the victims.

It frustrated her that the diocese had decided to release an incomplete list of priests accused of sexual abuse, leaving out the names of dozens of others who should have been named. The goal, she said, was political: placating critics of the diocese’s handling of abuse complaints by revealing as few names as possible and then hoping the crisis would melt away.

“It was the most chaotic and embarrassing and absurd process,” O’Connor told The News. “I was suspicious of it from the get-go.” On Tuesday, she joined those calling on Malone and Auxiliary Bishop Edward Grosz to resign.

In a response, issued near midnight on Tuesday, Malone’s spokeswoman treated the crisis enveloping the diocese like a political campaign, issuing what amounted to a negative ad against O’Connor. Because she had previously expressed support and affection for him, the statement said, O’Connor was “embarrassingly contradictory.”

But it’s not hard to believe that under stress, in a matter of emotional weight, O’Connor – or anyone else – might hold conflicting emotions. What speaks loudest is her actions and the telling fact that, in his response, Malone didn’t address the substance of her allegations, seeking only to damage O’Connor’s credibility. It’s yet another diversion by a church that has yet to fully confront its shame.

It’s people like O’Connor, not Malone, who will be the church’s salvation. Along with her are Paul L. Snyder III and Paul C. Emerson, deacons who have called for Malone to resign. As a young man, Emerson was twice abused by priests.

There are more. The Rev. Robert Zilliox is pastor of St. Mary Church in Swormville. He says he was also abused by a priest. A canon lawyer, Zilliox told “60 Minutes” that Malone had ignored his recommendations on several abuse cases.

“It’s beyond troubling,” Zilliox told The News. “That’s not the church. The church is holy,” he said. “Those are individuals in the church who are weak and who have made very bad decisions.”

We hope he is right, and that such actions do not represent the church, whose good works are many and valuable. But the pattern of sexual abuse by priests and cover-ups by bishops has been repeated around the country and the world, exposing untold numbers of children to sexual predators. Who can avoid wondering if, in fact, that isn’t the church at it exists now, hewing to a policy that has nothing to do with holiness and everything to do with self-protection?

Things are changing and more distressing details seem certain to emerge. But they are changing because brave souls such as Siobhan O’Connor are leading the way, hoping to save their church from itself.

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