Whistleblowers and the Abuse Crisis: Two Women’s Stories

As the abuse crisis in the Catholic Church has unfolded, some people employed by the Church have made the choice to publicize previously secret information about sexual abuse and cover-up in their local dioceses.

When Wisconsin Attorney General Josh Kaul announced in April the start of a statewide investigation of sexual abuse by religious leaders in the Catholic Church and other faith traditions, he not only invited victim-survivors to make anonymous reports through a dedicated website and phone line, but he also took the unusual step of encouraging people with inside information about their church’s response to abuse to make anonymous reports as well.

“Any little bit of information is helpful and helps us understand and see the big picture,” Michelle Viste, executive director of the Office of Crime Victim Services at the Wisconsin Department of Justice, told Awake in July.

This led us at Awake to wonder: What motivates whistleblowers to go public with what they know? Here we consider the experiences of Jennifer Haselberger and Siobhan O’Connor, two women who took information about abuse and cover-up in their respective dioceses to local media, hoping to force transparency.

Jennifer Haselberger’s Story

Canon lawyer Jennifer Haselberger (pictured above, right) served as the chancellor for canonical affairs for the Archdiocese of St. Paul & Minneapolis from 2008 until 2013 under Archbishop John Nienstedt. In a 107-page sworn statement filed in 2014, Haselberger explains that she accepted this job out of a sense of duty to the local Church. “The Archdiocese of Saint Paul and Minneapolis is my home diocese, and I consider myself a member of this community,” she stated. “I grew up here, and my family and friends attended parishes, schools, and other organizations [here].”

In her role as chancellor, Haselberger was responsible for maintaining diocesan records and advising archdiocesan staff on issues related to canon law. She saw evidence that the archdiocese was not following the Church’s 2002 Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People, and was disregarding both canon law and civil law in sexual abuse cases. Haselberger stated that she was disturbed by the Archdiocese’s “cavalier attitude towards the safety of other people’s children.”

For example, in her affidavit Haselberger described trying to convince her supervisors to take action in the case of Jonathan Shelley, a priest found to have thousands of pornographic images on his computer, including photos that appeared to show children in sexual acts. Despite this, he was allowed to continue in parish ministry. Haselberger ultimately turned over the images to the Ramsey County Attorney’s Office herself, without the support of her supervisors.

Haselberger said she also warned archdiocesan leaders as early as 2009 about priest Curtis Wehmeyer, who had a record of past sexual misconduct but was assigned to parish ministry. The archdiocese chose not to alert parishioners or parish staff about his past behavior. Later, in June 2012, the archdiocese received a report from a parish employee whose sons revealed that Wehmeyer had recently abused them in his camper, parked near the rectory.

Haselberger was distraught that the warnings to her supervisors had gone unheeded. She wrote in her statement, “Faced with at least two boys who had been abused, and acknowledging the potential for harm to countless others, I no longer believed that it was enough for me to merely recommend, especially when it had become so obvious that my recommendations would continue to be ignored. Rather, I felt that I had a moral obligation to take whatever steps necessary to ensure that no one else was hurt, and to see that the victims received justice.”

Haselberger left her job in protest in April 2013. She took information about the Wehmeyer case and others to Minnesota Public Radio, which broadcast a major radio documentary about the abuse and leadership crisis in the archdiocese.

The Ramsey County Attorney’s Office (RCAO) also launched a 20-month investigation of the archdiocese. It filed six criminal charges against the archdiocese as well as a civil petition that alleged inexcusable institutional failure of the archdiocese to protect children from abuse. Archbishop John Nienstedt resigned in 2015 and Archbishop Bernard Hebda was appointed in his place. The archdiocese and RCAO resolved all civil and criminal issues in two settlement agreements, the second of which required the archdiocese to take specific steps toward changing its culture, repairing the harm, and rebuilding trust.

Awake recently reached out to Haselberger, asking what led her to go public with the information about abuse cases. “I couldn’t look people in the eye knowing what I knew,” she said in an email. Did she ever worry that her actions might hurt the Church? “’The Church’ is the people,” she explained. “THEY were being hurt. I wanted to prevent more hurt from happening.”

Haselberger, who says she is “still Catholic,” advises people who work for the Church to consider “what their faith requires of them as opposed to what their bishop requires.”

Siobhan O’Connor’s Story

Siobhan O’Connor (pictured above, left) was hired in 2015 to serve as executive assistant of Bishop Richard Malone of the Diocese of Buffalo. “I was overjoyed to be working for my beloved Church,” she wrote in a 2018 essay in the journal First Things.  “Unfortunately, within three years I would transition from buoyant new hire to crestfallen whistleblower.”

In March 2018, Malone released a list of 42 priests in his diocese credibly accused of sexual abuse, promoting this as an admirable act of transparency and a victory for victim-survivors. But O’Connor knew the truth: She had seen an earlier draft of the list, which included the names of more than 100 priests. Later, she was the person answering the phone when heartbroken, frustrated victim-survivors called the chancery office, asking why their abusers were left off the public list.

“Since I worked in close proximity to Bishop Malone, I was able to bring my concerns directly to his attention,” she wrote. “But when I did so, the bishop told me not to worry because he was handling these matters. He was not.” She described how Malone allowed one priest to remain in parish ministry as a pastor, even after the diocesan review board recommended that he be removed for assessment. The bishop’s staff later reviewed the allegations against the priest and recommended that he be removed from ministry. Yet “Malone did absolutely nothing,” O’Connor said. “It was inaction of this nature that eventually compelled me to act.”

O’Connor had another pivotal experience: She was cleaning the vacuum closet at the chancery when she discovered a “carefully curated” binder that had been prepared for Malone when he was appointed bishop in 2012. It detailed all pending litigation against accused priests, some of whom were still in active ministry. The documents also showed efforts by diocesan staff “to protect the Church’s reputation and her assets,” O’Connor explained in a 60 Minutes interview in October 2018.

 “What I was witnessing boggled my mind, broke my heart, and burdened my soul,” O’Connor wrote in her essay. “With each passing week, my conscience felt as if it were in an ever-tightening vise … I began to realize that God had placed me in the right place at the right time, and that He would grant me the strength to do the right thing.”

She had noticed that questions to Bishop Malone from local journalist Charlie Specht of WKBW-TV usually pushed the bishop “to do the right thing.” So O’Connor made copies of documents and leaked them to Specht shortly before leaving her job in August 2018. Specht used the information in a three-part series about Malone’s mishandling of abuse cases. The bishop resisted calls for his resignation for more than a year before stepping down in December 2019.

During the 60 Minutes interview, journalist Bill Whitaker commented that critics might say O’Connor had betrayed the bishop. “I did betray him, and yet I can’t apologize for that, because there was a greater good to consider,” she explained. “The reality of what I saw really left me with no other option. Because at the end of my life, I’m not going to answer to Bishop Malone. I’m going to answer to God.”

In the essay about her experience, O’Connor called on others with this kind of information to share it. “It is my prayer that there are more chancery employees out there who will be able to set the truth free,” she wrote. “As for me, the actions I took left me with a heavy heart but a peaceful soul.”

—Erin O’Donnell, Editor, Awake Blog

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