For months, Siobhan O'Connor leaked confidential church documents that highlighted the scope of the priest sex abuse scandal and its cover-up within the Catholic Diocese of Buffalo.
What legal fallout might she face now?
"The law will only recognize the confidentiality of a document if it's considered privileged or if it's a trade secret or some special category of document,” explained Christine Bartholomew, an associate professor at the University at Buffalo School of Law. “If they were confidential simply because the diocese wanted them to remain confidential, that is not something that creates criminal liability. She might still have civil liability depending on her terms of employment contract, but the law is pretty protective of whistleblowers.”
Technically, O'Connor could be charged with petit larceny for using church resources to make the copies of the documents.
"It's very unlikely that a district attorney would choose to prosecute those charges, and if they did, what would those consequences be" said lawyer John Elmore.
Legal experts say the documents Siobhan copied can be used in the ongoing federal and state investigations into the Buffalo Diocese. They will have to be verified to be admitted as evidence.
Bartholomew says the church will have to turn over most requested documents to investigators.
"For something to be clergy privileged communication, it means it is a statement made to a cleric. It can be from one cleric to another for the purposes of spiritual guidance or advice that's confidential at the time it was made. The church has taken the position that it's not just cleric to cleric. They've asserted, unsuccessfully in prior cases, that information like bank record or documentation about employment, complaints about priests were also part of this clergy privilege," said Bartholomew.
If the information O’Connor provided is verified, the diocese and Bishop Richard Malone could face legal problems. All 50 states have mandatory reporting laws when it comes to child abuse. It covers school officials, medical professions, and police officers, just to name a few.
In 28 states, clergy is included in that list. New York is not one of those states.
"If children are being hurt, we need to do everything we can do in society, including make strong laws to protect children from harm,” Elmore said.