The woman who leaked documents on clergy sex abuse in the Buffalo Catholic Diocese attended Bishop Richard J. Malone’s first listening session with the laity Saturday.
One of about 200 Catholics in attendance at the two-hour session at St. Gregory the Great Catholic Church in Amherst, Siobhan O’Connor said the gathering left her with a sense of concern that Catholics are divided — including whether the bishop should remain as head of the diocese.
Several prominent local Catholics and public officials have called for Malone to step down for his handling of sex abuse by clergy, but he has said he has no intention of resigning.
“I was just really taken that there is such polarization. If we are divided, we’ll be less effective as members of the church,” O’Connor said after the session.
O’Connor, who had served as the bishop’s executive assistant until she released reams of confidential documents to WKBW-TV last year, said she felt an obligation as a Catholic to attend the session and learn more about where fellow Catholics stood on church issues.
She said a tightly scripted format for the listening session did not allow that to happen.
Since she released the documents and left her job at the chancery, O’Connor said she has not spoken with the bishop.
“This is the closest I’ve been to him. I was a little more than a table away from him. I believe he saw me. I’m trying to be respectful. My presence might not have been welcome,” she said.
She noted a divide among the attendees over whether the bishop should resign or stay.
“There were people calling for the bishop to resign at my table and a handful of others,” she said.
Others in attendance said only one of the many speakers who addressed the bishop called for his resignation. The majority, they said, expressed strong support for Malone to remain as head of the diocese.
The format of the two-hour listening session allowed for one speaker from each of 24 tables set up in the parish center. Each table had eight people. Speakers were given two minutes to express views, according several individuals who attended. The media was not allowed to attend the session and were kept outside in the center’s foyer.
“The people who spoke were intelligent and caring and a lot of them spoke about forgiveness. Most of the people wanted forgiveness and to move forward,” said Doug Saturnino of the abuse crisis, but he added that other matters were discussed involving ministry, the laity and women’s roles in the church.
More than a dozen priests from different parishes were also in attendance, he said.
As Vallina Christiansen left the gathering with her teenage daughter, she stopped briefly and said, “We love our bishop and absolutely support him. We’re also disappointed with the media. One of the speakers said the media reports false information.”
But others defended the media in its role on reporting details of how the church did not release information on priests who abused children.
“If it wasn’t for the media, we wouldn’t have known about this,” said Patty Otto, adding that she was glad O’Connor attended and that she released the documents. “What she did was brave and courageous. She’s told the truth.”
Otto said her advice to Malone is to be open.
“I’d like to see the bishop be more transparent. They say they are going to be transparent, let’s see that. Walk the walk,” Otto said. “As a mother of two children in Catholic school, I’m not 100% that if any issue would occur that the parish and school community would be that transparent.”
The listening sessions, which will continue through mid-August, are an outgrowth of a proposal made by a group of several prominent local Catholics who call themselves The Movement to Restore Trust.
“Despite the fact that we have these issues, there is still a feeling of great hope in the church of Jesus Christ,” said Paul D. Bauer, a group member who was at the session.
Thomas R. Beecher Jr., another group member, said, “There is polarization in our church, but it certainly wasn’t addressed today. What ran through so many of the comments was a lot of love expressed for the bishop and that we want him to be our leader and we are happy he has stayed.”
Others said a spiritual perspective is needed for the church to heal.
“The church is us. It’s not the Vatican. We have to ask the Holy Spirit for discernment. Our allegiance is to Jesus Christ,” Magdalene Hrebik said. “We follow the lamb, not the donkey or the elephant.”
“I love our church and I love our priests,” said Christie Thein, “and I feel in my heart, right at this moment, that God is calling us to heal the wound in our hearts and to grow in holiness.”
At the conclusion of the session, Malone could be heard briefly addressing the participants, asking for forgiveness for his failures and urging parishioners to “move forward together as God’s people.”
There are six more listening sessions and input received from the laity will be considered to develop the “next steps to address the effects of the clergy sexual abuse crisis and other matters of concern,” according to a diocesan news release.
O’Connor said she plans on attending the remaining sessions.