Experts: Prosecutor's Deal with Phoenix Bishop Minimizes Damage to Church

By Rachel Zoll
The Associated Press, carried in The Times-Picayune [Phoenix AZ]
June 3, 2003

The deal the Roman Catholic bishop of Phoenix struck to avoid indictment for sheltering sexually abusive priests is extraordinary, but experts say it was the best agreement for the church under the circumstances.

Bishop Thomas O'Brien's dramatic admission Monday that he covered-up claims against clergy will certainly damage his reputation, and he has agreed to surrender some of his authority, church observers say.

But the agreement complies with church law and does not breach the constitutional separation of church and state, according to legal experts.

"The facts are worse for the bishop than for the church," said Professor John S. Baker, a constitutional law expert at Louisiana State University Law Center who monitors criminal abuse cases against dioceses.

Under the agreement signed May 3, O'Brien acknowledged that he knowingly let priests accused of sexual misconduct work with children and that he transferred clergy accused of abuse without telling their superiors or parishioners about the allegations.

Investigators had enough evidence to indict the bishop on obstruction of justice charges, Maricopa County Attorney Rick Romley said.

As part of the agreement, the bishop will no longer handle abuse claims. Instead, a new independent special advocate will handle the complaints and, if the bishop interferes, he can be prosecuted.

O'Brien also agreed to appoint a moderator of the Curia, the church's equivalent of a chief of staff, to oversee day-to-day administration of the diocese. However, the bishop, who has led the diocese since 1981, retains decision-making power for the 430,000 Phoenix-area Catholics.

David Clohessy, national director of the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests, called the deal "naive" and "unenforceable."

"Yes, there's some alleged transfer of job responsibilities, but it is to people who are near and dear to him and who report to him," Clohessy said.

Sister Mary Ann Walsh, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, noted that many of the changes in the Phoenix deal, such as hiring a child protection advocate, were already mandated under the bishops' new national policy on preventing abuse.

The Rev. Thomas Reese, editor of the Jesuit magazine America and an expert on the Vatican, said the deal is more palatable to the Vatican than if O'Brien had resigned.

Church law allows bishops to delegate authority to a moderator of the Curia or vicar general and bishops in the largest dioceses often do so. But the Vatican would consider church independence violated if a bishop stepped down under pressure from a prosecutor, Reese said.

"There is the fear of the domino effect," he said.

O'Brien offered his resignation but the Vatican refused, Romley said.

Five American bishops have resigned since January 2002 in connection with the scandal. Among them was Cardinal Bernard Law, who stepped down as archbishop of Boston in December after being condemned for letting priests go unpunished.

At least a dozen grand juries have been convened nationwide in the past 18 months to investigate how dioceses handled sex abuse claims. Some priests were indicted and a few of the panels issued reports -- not indictments -- accusing dioceses of sheltering predators from police.

The only deal that comes close to the one in Arizona was in December in New Hampshire, where Manchester Bishop John McCormack publicly acknowledged that the diocese would have been convicted of failing to protect children from offenders if prosecutors had gone to court. Without the agreement, his diocese would have been the first in the nation to face criminal charges.

In December, O'Brien disclosed that at least 50 priests, former priests and church employees had been accused of sexual misconduct with minors in the Phoenix Diocese over the past three decades. He declined to identify many of them, and denied their actions were covered up.

O'Brien may be chastened by the deal, but that likely won't move other bishops to make similar admissions, Clohessy said.

"If losing face and bad public relations were a sufficient deterrent, most bishops would have dramatically changed their handling of abuse years ago," he said.

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