Buffalo News [Buffalo NY]
February 27, 2023
By Charlie Specht
Blowing the whistle on a cover-up of sexual abuse in the Diocese of Buffalo cost them not only their jobs, but their careers working for the church they loved.
But five years later, Siobhan M. O’Connor and the Rev. Ryszard S. Biernat have no regrets about providing a television reporter documents and audio recordings implicating then-Bishop Richard J. Malone in the mishandling of clergy sexual abuse allegations.
“It wasn’t easy to face the whole machine of church administration,” Biernat said in an interview last week. “I don’t like making people hate me but some people did after that. I didn’t take it lightly that I was going to make some enemies doing that.”
O’Connor, Malone’s former executive assistant, knew it would be hard to secure a new office job after she went on CBS News’ “60 Minutes” and acknowledged that she was the key source for three WKBW-TV reports that led to protests and widespread calls for Malone to resign.
[See the link to the WKBW-TV reports here.]
“It’s a difficult thing to interview for a position … for any executive assistant, one of the priorities is can you maintain confidentiality? And it’s pretty obvious that, at least in certain circumstances, I cannot,” O’Connor said.
To mark the fifth anniversary of the start of the sexual abuse scandal in the diocese, The Buffalo News spoke with the two whistleblowers, as well as a former bishop and others who played a central role in the abuse scandal that led to state and federal investigations and the bankruptcy of the diocese.
Recordings revealed this week to a local TV reporter were made while Biernat was serving as the bishop’s priest secretary, his closest aide. Serving in that role for six years, he spent more time with the bishop than any other person in the Diocese of
Few have paid as high a price as Biernat for exposing the diocese’s secrets. Technically, he remains a priest, but has been suspended since Malone imposed sanctions on him the day before the bishop resigned in 2019.
Biernat served as Malone’s clerical assistant, driver and housemate until he provided audio recordings to WKBW-TV of Malone concealing sexual harassment accusations against a Cheektowaga priest.
“This could be the end for me as bishop,” Malone said in the recordings. “It could force me to resign.”
One month after the publication of the tapes, the Vatican opened an investigation of Malone, and he resigned in December 2019. He was temporarily replaced by Albany Bishop Edward B. Scharfenberger, who Biernat said proposed that he leave the diocese and serve as a priest elsewhere.
“I felt that was a move to just push me outside so people forget and move on,” Biernat said. “Buffalo is my home.”
Bishop Michael W. Fisher also has not removed the suspension imposed by Malone, so Biernat has moved on. The 42-year-old priest, who has a background in electrical engineering, now serves as facilities manager at Larkin Development Group in Buffalo.
“I love fixing stuff,” Biernat said. “I find lots of fulfillment in this job, and I can continue to be helpful to people.”
He occasionally performs priestly functions such as blessing terminally ill Catholics who reach out to him, and performing weekly Masses on Zoom for survivors of clergy sexual abuse.
Since leaving the diocese, O’Connor has worked at an insurance company, a dental office and two nonprofits. She said she found her true purpose nine days after Bishop Malone resigned, when her father was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s.
“It was almost like God planned it, that the one chapter closed with Malone’s resignation and then it was a natural focus on my family’s needs,” she said.
O’Connor now works as her father’s full-time caregiver. She cares for him at his home, takes him to medical appointments and occasionally to church to pray.
“When people say, ‘What are you doing?’ I’m like, ‘Well, basically I’m just living out the Fourth Commandment,’ ” said O’Connor, who is 39. “I’m honoring my father and mother. They’ve done so much for me, and to have the opportunity to help them out in this way is a real blessing.”
Five years later, despite promises to do right by abuse victims, the diocese has not paid a penny in damages to an estimated 900 people who filed claims alleging they were sexually abused by priests or other diocese employees.
Michael Whalen set off the abuse scandal on Feb. 27, 2018, when he called a news conference across from the Catholic Center and revealed that he was sexually abused by the Rev. Norbert Orsolits in the 1980s.
Later that day, Orsolits, then 78, admitted to a Buffalo News reporter that he molested “probably dozens” of children during his more than four decades as a priest.
“If I had a choice doing it over again, absolutely I would do it all over again,” Whalen said in an interview. “I feel great that I was able to step forward and have the chance to tell my story. I didn’t think it would blow up the way it did.”
Since 2019, people who said they were sexually abused have filed Child Victims Act lawsuits against more than 230 Catholic priests who served in the Buffalo Diocese.
Orsolits died in March 2021 at the age of 81. Whalen said he regularly keeps in touch with other survivors, but said his life has not radically changed since he stepped forward. He spends most of his days enjoying time with his 11 grandchildren.
“I’m still the South Buffalo guy, still loving life,” Whalen said. “I may not be in the spotlight or be in your face anymore, but I’m still here. I’m happy. I’m in a good place, and that’s all I’ve wanted other survivors to do, is get to that place.”
Bishop Richard J. Malone is seen speaking to members of the media on Sept. 4, 2019. Malone in December 2019 became the first bishop to resign in the diocese’s 172-year history.
The decision of who succeeds Richard Malone will ultimately be made by the pope, but only following a lengthy process that begins at the diocesan
Bishop Richard J. Malone
Malone in December 2019 became the first bishop to resign in the diocese’s 172-year history. A poll commissioned by The Buffalo News showed most Catholics – and 86%of people in Erie and Niagara counties – wanted Malone to step down.
Since then, he has lived in a Town of Tonawanda house. He also spends time at a home he owns in Cape Cod in Massachusetts.
In a statement sent to The News last week, Malone said he occasionally celebrates Mass and performs confirmations as a “visiting celebrant” at various Western New York parishes.
“I again apologize on behalf of the diocese to all who were abused before I became bishop and apologize personally for those occasions when I failed in the manner in which I addressed the crisis,” Malone, 76, said in the statement.
The statement said that in November 2019, “my innate sense was that because of the erosion of trust in the diocese, the diocese could only move forward with new leadership. That is why I made the decision to ask for early retirement.”
Bishop Richard J. Malone talks about past priest abuse in the Diocese of Buffalo. buffalodiocese.org
Malone remains a priest and bishop in good standing, a diocesan spokesperson said, which means he receives a pension and health care paid by the diocese.
The State Attorney General’s Office in its settlement of a lawsuit against the diocese stipulated that Malone could not serve on the board of any charitable organization in the state. Malone does not serve on any such boards because he is no longer the sitting bishop, the spokesperson said.
Survivors of abuse at the hands of priests say Michael Whalen’s courage became the history-changing push that finally overwhelmed diocesan secrecy, going back generations.
A pivotal moment
Fisher and other diocesan leaders have said the diocese is moving forward since the abuse scandal, embarking on a church consolidation program called “Road to Renewal.”
Still, Biernat said the abuse scandal was a “pivotal moment” that changed the way child sexual abuse – both inside and outside of the Catholic Church – was viewed in Western New York.
That eclipses any of the consequences they have had to face, he and O’Connor said.
“That was one of our biggest things: to help those who had been hurt, and to prevent others from being hurt in the future,” O’Connor said. “It really was a simple thing that we wanted to achieve, so that’s a great consolation that it did happen.”