Bishop Refuses Deal That Would Have Ended Criminal Investigation

Joseph A. Reaves
The Arizona Republic [Phoenix AZ]
March 31, 2003

Two of the state's most prominent lawyers, both staunch Catholics, tried to broker a deal with prosecutors that would have called for Bishop Thomas J. O'Brien to partially step aside in return for an end to the criminal investigation of the Phoenix Diocese.

The private initiative was made just before Christmas by Ernest Calderon, president of the Arizona Bar Association, and Michael C. Manning, who represented both O'Brien and the diocese until Dec. 8.

Kim Sue Lia Perkes, spokeswoman for O'Brien, on Monday dismissed any proposed deal as unauthorized and unwarranted.

"The bishop had no knowledge that anyone was trying to broker a deal on his behalf," she said.

A Maricopa County grand jury has been investigating the diocese's handling of decades of sexual abuse by priests and church employees since last summer. Two priests have been indicted and County Attorney Rick Romley has refused to rule out the possibility that senior church officials could face charges for covering up the abuse.

The Arizona Republic obtained copies this week of a letter Manning wrote requesting a meeting with Romley to discuss the criminal investigation and follow-up correspondence from the diocese chastising Manning and Calderon.

Their proposal, which Romley refused to confirm or deny, called for O'Brien to ask Pope John Paul II to appoint a co-adjutor bishop for the Phoenix Diocese in return for an end to any threat of criminal indictment.

Co-adjutors are bishops-in-waiting with guaranteed rights of succession. They share power with the incumbent bishop.

"Mr. Manning and Mr. Calderon apparently presented the elements of a proposed agreement between the diocese, its bishop and the county attorney by which at least some aspects of the county attorney's current investigation might be resolved," wrote Greg Leisse, longtime diocesan attorney.

"Any such proposal by Mr. Manning and Mr. Calderon was not authorized."

A coadjutor was appointed in the Tucson Diocese in October 2001 when Bishop Manuel D. Moreno and the church were facing 11 lawsuits by 16 plaintiffs who claimed they were sexually abused by priests in the 1960s, '70s and '80s. Those suits were settled in January 2002 for an estimated $14 million.

Moreno, 72, resigned March 7, citing ill health. He was replaced by his coadjutor, the Most Rev. Gerald F. Kicanas, 61, who became the sixth bishop in the 107-year history of the Tucson Diocese.

O'Brien's second-in-command, Vicar General Dale J. Fushek, acknowledged last month that the possiblity of requesting a coadjutor was discussed in December.

"The idea was kicked around, but it's not on the table now," said Fushek.

Chris Gunty, associate publisher of The Catholic Sun newspaper and a spokesman for the bishop, said the diocese has heard rumors for months that a coadjutor might be named.

"All I can say is we will neither confirm nor deny those rumors," said Gunty.

The coadjutor proposal surfaced Dec. 11 when Manning and Calderon asked to meet privately with Romley. The two stressed in a letter Manning wrote that they had "no authority to speak on behalf of anyone other than ourselves."

The Republic obtained a copy of the letter last week. Manning and Calderon confirmed its authenticity only after being confronted with the precise wording.

"I wrote a letter to Mr. Romley suggesting a meeting with Ernie Calderon and myself," Manning said. "We did so not as lawyers, but just as concerned citizens, concerned lawyers and concerned Catholics."

Manning refused to confirm the meeting ever took place.

"You've got the letter, and I shouldn't talk about anything outside the scope of the letter," Manning said. "I could speak because this was done as a private citizen, but out of respect for both parties, I won't."

Calderon, who once represented the diocese, said he was "approached to go along with Mike Manning because both of us had good relations with both Mr. Romley and the bishop."

Romley refused comment on the meeting or any proposed settlement. But The Republic also obtained a copy of a Dec. 19 letter from the Phoenix Diocese that confirmed the meeting took place.

"Based upon our current understanding, we believe that certain elements of the proposal by Mr. Manning and Mr. Calderon would significantly infringe on the rights of the Catholic Church, the Diocese of Phoenix and its Bishop to the free exercise of religion," the letter read.

On Monday afternoon, Leisse refused to discuss the specifics of any proposed deal or how it might have infringed upon freedom of religion.

"I don't see that that is appropriate," Leisse said. "I couldn't really discuss that without getting into the content of the proposals."

At a news conference earlier this year, Romley hinted O'Brien could avoid prosecution by apologizing for his role in the sex-abuse and being more forthcoming with information.

"I want the church to be able to move on," Romley said. "How we get there will also be a factor on whether or not I bring charges."

That statement led to speculation that Romley was trying to convince the bishop to resign or step aside.

Reach the reporter at or (602) 444-8125

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