Romley Pushing Envelope, but O'Brien Is Just Wrong

The Arizona Republic [Phoenix AZ]
June 4, 2003

There is much about the sexual abuse scandals in the Catholic Church that I simply cannot fathom.

I can understand, while not condoning, the church's desire to retain control over the discipline of its priests, even for gross misconduct. For centuries, the church has fought attempts by secular authorities to control its personnel, its property and even its doctrine.

Secular society cannot, of course, delegate enforcement of its laws to church officials, particularly for offenses as serious as child molestation. And in a civil society that protects religious liberty, such as in the United States, the church should be cooperating with secular authorities in such circumstances rather than being an obstacle.

But, given history, I can at least understand how and why the church made the mistake of trying to keep discipline for such offenses within its orbit.

What I cannot fathom is why, having until lately kept discipline largely within its orbit, the church exercised so little of it.

How, in the true name of God, can someone who, in Erasmus' description, aspires to be an imitator of Christ, continue to put innocents in the path of known sexual predators?

But that is clearly what happened, across the country and here in Phoenix.

On Monday, Bishop Thomas J. O'Brien said that he "did not oversee decades of wrongdoing." But he did.

His statement acknowledges putting priests known to him to have been accused of sexual misconduct in positions to work with minors, and doing so without full disclosure to their supervisors or the communities they served. The indictments and convictions for sexual abuse of minors by priests under O'Brien's leadership speak for themselves.

Many believe that O'Brien himself should be indicted, undoubtedly in significant part because Maricopa County Attorney Rick Romley says there is sufficient evidence to do so. But there is reason to suspect that this is more than a bit of prosecutorial bravado.

Romley doesn't claim to have sufficient evidence to indict O'Brien for complicity in the sexual abuse itself, or even for failure to report it when it came to his attention. Instead, he claims to have a "credible" case for "obstruction of justice," presumably for interfering with others providing information to secular authorities.

But obstruction of justice would require proving, beyond a reasonable doubt, that O'Brien used "means of bribery, misrepresentation, intimidation or force or threats of force," according to the statute. Based upon what's on the public record, that would be a difficult case to make.

What the church actually relied on was the faith of the victims and their families, and the deference to authority it teaches. That's a greater moral offense. But it is an offense beyond the reach of civil authorities.

Romley says he forbore prosecution to get an agreement to change the "culture" of the church, to prevent abuses in the future.

Ordinarily, this would be a deeply disturbing reach of authority. It is not the business of the state to change the "culture" of a church, or dictate its administrative structure, or the use of its funds, as this agreement does.

But these are not ordinary circumstances. The Diocese of Phoenix was engaged in a pattern of conduct that put children at risk. Romley leveraged what was probably a much weaker case than he has publicly conveyed to establish procedures he believes will better protect children in the future.

Probably it would have been better to have left this job to the civil lawsuits brought by the victims. But at least Romley's reach of authority was an attempt at resolution and closure.

Sadly, O'Brien's statement of defiance on Monday was not.

Although not a Catholic, I have long respected the church and admired and appreciated its moral authority and leadership. And that includes its historic fight to protect its institutions from intrusions by secular authority.

But, in this case, the state has been right. And the church has been very, very wrong.

Reach Robb at or (602) 444-8472.

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