Morality Check
O'Brien's Admissions Are a Start in Rebuilding Trust

The Arizona Republic [Phoenix AZ]
June 3, 2003

The agreement between Bishop Thomas J. O'Brien and County Attorney Rick Romley allows the bishop to avoid indictment in return for a reduction of his diocesan authority.

It is not the final word on the local church's sex scandal. It is nonetheless a welcome sign that, after months of confrontation and obstinacy, healing can finally begin in the church and in the community.

It is not the final word because Romley has quite correctly reserved the right to pursue criminal charges against any priest suspected of sexual abuse.

But mostly it is not the last word because the agreement ties O'Brien and the diocese to future conduct in a fashion that a criminal court could not have done, though the Bishop contends that many of these would have been done in any case.

"In my primary objective, I have to do something to protect the children in the future," Romley said Monday. "This has to change. I had to force a change and that's what I'm trying to do with this."

In what may be the most candid admission by any bishop that the church protected molester priests, O'Brien acknowledges in the May 3 agreement that he knowingly allowed priests accused of sexual misconduct to work with children and transferred them without advising their supervisors or parishioners about the allegations.

For this, both O'Brien and the church should be deeply ashamed.

Importantly, however, the agreement effectively curtails O'Brien's ability to endanger the church's children in such a fashion.

It removes from him the power to deal with sex-abuse charges in the diocese, turning that area over to a new independent special advocate. A new moderator of the Curia will take over the day-to-day administration of the diocese. A new diocesan attorney replaces the bishop's long-time adviser on these matters.

While falling short of the blood - resignation and prosecution - many had sought, the agreement at least removes O'Brien from the possibility of cover-up and obstruction.

More than that, it forces the diocese to review and modify its policy on sexual misconduct and to adequately train its personnel. The diocese must contribute $600,000 for the county attorney's Victim Compensation Fund and for counseling in the diocese of sexual-abuse victims. It will also create a victims' assistance panel to provide up to $50,000 in counseling to any one victim and his or her family.

And if the diocese reneges, the county attorney is free to prosecute. Romley said his office had built a "credible" and prosecutable criminal case of obstruction against O'Brien.

Romley said O'Brien had earlier offered to resign but that higher church authority had forbidden it. O'Brien said resignation was never an option and that he serves at the pleasure of the Pope and not the County Attorney.

Whether the Bishop made the offer to resign or not, it's clear that the church could have inspired more confidence in its leadership had it sought and accepted such a resignation. That's because the scandal as played out in Maricopa County had long ago tarnished O'Brien's leadership and moral authority on this and many other matters.

This agreement goes a considerable distance in allowing the church to rebuild that needed trust. It's appropriately about the future.

"This has been an investigation of broken hearts," Romley said. "That is the past. I am ready to close this chapter. I choose the future. For the sake of the children."

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