Phoenix Bishop Admits Moving Accused Priests

By Charlie LeDuff
The New York Times [Phoenix AZ]
Downloaded June 3, 2003

The Roman Catholic bishop of Phoenix, Thomas J. O'Brien, has signed an agreement admitting that he knew of accusations of sexual abuse by priests but transferred them without telling their new superiors or parishioners, an Arizona prosecutor said yesterday.

In exchange for his admission, the bishop will avoid prosecution, the Maricopa County prosecutor, Richard M. Romley, said.

Mr. Romley also said that his yearlong grand jury investigation into accusations of sexual misconduct in the Phoenix diocese had ended in indictments of six priests for abuse of children and that indictments might come against two more priests.

While Mr. Romley said there was no evidence that Bishop O'Brien, the spiritual leader of more than 400,000 Catholics, had engaged in criminal sexual misconduct, the agreement states that the bishop failed to protect the victims of such misconduct by others employed by the diocese.

Most important, Mr. Romley said, was an 82-word admission from the bishop apologizing for his mishandling of the accusations by shuffling the priests into new assignments.

Bishop O'Brien, who agreed to surrender authority in sexual abuse cases, did not respond to requests for comment.

In a separate statement released yesterday, he did not apologize for his mistakes but said he would dedicate himself to the protection of children in his churches and schools.

"This has been a very difficult time for our entire diocese, for me, for our priests, and especially for the victims of sexual misconduct," the bishop wrote, adding, "Several of the most significant provisions that are included in the agreement with the county attorney were initiated by the diocese and are already being implemented."

Under the arrangement, which calls for an overhaul in the way the diocese deals with accusations of sexual misconduct, Bishop O'Brien will be granted immunity from prosecution for failing to report the abuses over his 22-year tenure or from any charges of covering up those abuses.

Since a sex scandal erupted last year within the American Catholic Church, five bishops have resigned in disgrace, including Cardinal Bernard F. Law, the archbishop of Boston, after it was revealed that he had protected scores of priests who later went on to abuse again. Though some priests have been indicted, no bishop or cardinal has.

The Phoenix agreement is similar to one signed in December by Bishop John B. McCormack of Manchester, N.H. In that deal, Bishop McCormack admitted that the government had enough evidence to convict the diocese for child endangerment.

But yesterday's agreement is different in its scope and in the very public way the diocese will be forced to operate. Among the 14 concessions agreed to by Bishop O'Brien is the appointment of a moderator of the curia, essentially a chief of staff who could handle daily operations of the diocese.

The bishop will also appoint an independent youth protection advocate who will oversee accusations of sexual misconduct past and present and report them to the appropriate civil authorities. The bishop may not be involved with the advocate, under penalty of prosecution, Mr. Romley said.

The diocese will also be responsible for establishing a victims compensation fund that is to be used for treatment and counseling.

"Why did I choose immunity in turn for an agreement?" Mr. Romley asked. "The No. 1 priority is to stop abuse and protect children in the future. Those who actually committed crimes were charged yesterday. In all likelihood, the bishop would have remained even if I had charged him. What I'm trying to do is build a framework where the church culture changes - at least here in Phoenix."

The bishop revealed late last year that at least 50 church leaders in the diocese has been accused of inappropriate sexual contact with minors. The bishop then vowed to play an active role in cleaning up the diocese in the face of the scandal.

But Mr. Romley said yesterday that despite the bishop's promise of cooperation, his response to requests for information was slow and grudging. He said that though he had uncovered evidence of obstruction of justice, an indictment against the bishop would have been counterproductive.

"Obstruction of justice is a low-level felony that more than likely would have meant probation," Mr. Romley said. "We had been told that even if the bishop had wanted to resign, Rome would not allow it. That is, if he had been indicted, he would remain. The simple fact is we are moving forward."

Some observers said the bishop's actions and apology appeared to be a legal tactic to prevent an onslaught of criminal charges against other American bishops.

"It is a melancholy day when a bishop has to cop a plea," said Eugene Kennedy, a former priest who is a professor emeritus of psychology at Loyola University in Chicago. "He is doing what he must do in order to avoid being indicted. It is a graceless maneuver, and the human transaction will satisfy no one."

Mr. Romley said that he had evidence that Bishop O'Brien had counseled families who had contended abuse, and told them not to report their suspicions to the authorities. He had promised to deal with the accused clergy internally. That did not seem to happen, Mr. Romley said.

David Clohessy, national director of the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests, said the bishop's ability to avoid criminal prosecution did little to protect children and even less to get a full accounting of past sins. "The one untested approach - criminal charges against a bishop - were dropped," Mr. Clohessy said with a heave of sadness.

Among the priests indicted yesterday were Patrick O. Colleary, charged with three felonies in connection with sodomy with a boy under 15, and Lawrence J. Lovell, charged with sexual contact and molestation of a child.

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