A Call to the Vatican
If Bishop O'Brien Won't Step down, Then the Pope Must Step in

The Arizona Republic [Phoenix AZ]
June 5, 2003

"I serve at the pleasure of the pope and not the county attorney."

- Bishop Thomas J. O'Brien, June 2

To a community that values the Catholic Church, much of what Bishop Thomas O'Brien said after the release of his immunity agreement Monday is disappointing, frustrating and baffling.

Amid the confusion, this much is clear. It is time for the church - at its highest level - to replace O'Brien as head of the Phoenix Diocese. He has forfeited the trust and moral high ground that are essential to leadership.

The Vatican has to install a new bishop in the Phoenix Diocese.

Not because of the actions of a local, secular county attorney.

Not because of pressure from the community, including some legislators.

Certainly not because of a newspaper editorial.

The Vatican has to replace O'Brien for the sake of those he was entrusted with shepherding.

For the sake of the local church, which badly needs to continue the painful process of healing.

For the sake of the good that church can accomplish in a community that needs its goodness.

And for the sake of moving beyond a horrible, shameful reality in the church's past.

Maricopa County Attorney Rick Romley did the right thing by offering O'Brien immunity in exchange for an admission of guilt and the promise of a series of reforms.

O'Brien's signed statement, released Monday, was a stunning, straightforward confession.

It reads: "I allowed Roman Catholic priests under my supervision to work with minors after becoming aware of allegations of sexual misconduct. I further acknowledge that priests who had allegations of sexual misconduct made against them were transferred to ministries without full disclosure to their superiors or to the community in which they were assigned."

Romley said he had enough evidence to indict the bishop for obstruction of justice but opted for immunity in exchange for O'Brien's commitment to reforms designed to remove the bishop from determining the fate of clergy accused of child molestation.

But O'Brien quickly went public to backpedal. He denied any sort of "cover-up" and insisted he retains ultimate authority over how the diocese will deal with allegations of sexual abuse by clergy.

Clearly, there is a conflict between the autonomy the church wishes to exercise and the attempt by Romley to define and refine how the diocese operates.

But the church, which feels itself under siege from outside institutions, cannot let a battle of power and will eclipse the real issue.

That issue is children - betrayed, abused and scarred for life. That issue has exposed both a serious breach of trust and a breathtaking misuse of power.

Forbes magazine estimates that 20,000 people nationwide have been molested by Catholic priests. The policies and practices of the Catholic Church enabled abuse to continue through exactly the actions O'Brien confessed in his statement.

No, it was not intentional. No, it was not malicious. Indeed, it likely grew from deep belief in the power of forgiveness and reform.

But it happened. And the tears cannot be denied, dismissed or devalued.

O'Brien's signed statement to Romley showed an understanding of the culpability that he and the church have for allowing it to happen. It was a glimmer of hope. His statements since suggest that the desire for immunity, not accountability, motivated his agreement. He doesn't get it.

The bishop should step down. Quickly.

The Vatican, known for moving with glacial deliberation, has to recognize that such a pace will not serve the needs of the Phoenix Diocese, its faithful or the larger community that benefits from the contributions of the church.

The Vatican has to rise above pride, overcome the fear of appearing to cave in to the pressure of the secular world, and do the right thing.

For the right reasons.

It must replace Bishop Thomas O'Brien


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