Bishop Thomas O'Brien at the Edge of a Cliff

The Arizona Republic [Phoenix AZ]
January 14, 2003

It was the worst possible excuse a parochial school miscreant could come up with, so naturally I used it all the time. "It wasn't just me," I'd tell an unflinching nun. "Everybody was talking (or chewing gum or scribbling answers on the palms of their hands)." Not only would I get the lecture about the lemmings, as in, "If everyone was jumping off a cliff, would you do that, too?" I also got, "Did Jesus do what everyone was doing, or did he stand alone and do the right thing?" At the time, I couldn't point to the lemminglike example of the Catholic bishops, including our own Bishop Thomas O'Brien.

But that has changed. After months of sad revelations, the only argument O'Brien can make on his own behalf is that, years ago, transferring potentially dangerous priests from parish to parish and urging victims and their families not to come forward was acceptable. In fact, everybody was doing it.

A survey published in the New York Times over the weekend provided examples from Catholic dioceses all over the country. Phoenix and Tucson were not immune. Not only did priests like O'Brien shelter fellow priests and try to keep victims quiet, but police agencies tended to side with the clergy. And so did society in general, which didn't want to believe priests or church workers would do such things.

So we need to ask ourselves: After all these years, should we blame O'Brien for not bucking the system? For not standing up against the hierarchy of his own church and the authorities on the outside? For not doing the right thing when he might have had to stand alone? Yes.

There was a time when segregation was acceptable and denying people their civil rights was perfectly OK. Some of the first men and women to defy that policy were Catholic priests and nuns. Likewise, when abusing laborers was the accepted law of the land, it was Catholics like Dorothy Day who fought to change it. Just as it was Catholic clergy who stood up for poor people in this country and in Latin America. And Catholic clergy who publicly said the Vietnam War was wrong at a time when just about everyone else was saying it was right.

If a grade school punk can't get away with using a tired old excuse like "everybody was doing it," how can a man of the cloth?

The only other argument that Bishop O'Brien has in his favor is that he doesn't remember doing anything wrong. But that doesn't wash. O'Brien has been accused by several victims and family members of transferring priests who were known sex offenders. "The bishop himself called me after I reported my children had been molested and said, 'Betty, you need to stop. You need to be quiet,' " said Betty Shannon, mother of three abuse victims.

The victim of ex-priest John Giandelone made the same claims. That victim's lawyer said, "Nobody should be above the law. Father Giandelone will have to respond to the law for what he did, and the bishop will have to be accountable for what he did back in 1980 in connection with telling the family not to tell anybody and essentially covering it up."

Not only are O'Brien and others said to have pressured victims and their families to keep quiet, but at least twice judges gave in to requests from O'Brien and reduced plea bargains made with sexually abusive priests. Sometimes going against recommendations of professional counselors.

O'Brien has said he doesn't remember telling families not to come forward.

Unfortunately for him, the families remember.

And he can't deny asking for leniency. He can only say, again, that everybody was doing such things at the time.

To paraphrase a stern nun's question to a wayward Catholic schoolboy, "If all the other priests were jumping off a cliff, would you do that, too?"

Reach Montini at or (602) 444-8978.


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