Romley Says Agreement with O'Brien Was Voluntary

By Howard Fischer
Arizona Daily Sun [Phoenix AZ]
June 5, 2003

PHOENIX -- Maricopa County Attorney Rick Romley said Wednesday he was constitutionally entitled to get the bishop of the Phoenix diocese to agree to give up some of his powers.

Romley said he has not imposed the will of government, as represented by his office, on the internal affairs of religion. He said that Bishop Thomas O'Brien voluntarily agreed to all the terms.

The county attorney acknowledged, though, it is "a fine point" over exactly how voluntary were the bishop's actions.

He said the pact was the result of "a forced negotiation," with O'Brien being told that the alternative to not signing the pact was to be indicted on charges of obstruction of justice. And if the bishop violates any of the 14 points in the agreement, then Romley is free to seek criminal charges.

The agreement has been monitored elsewhere, and the Associated Press reports that prosecutors are set to meet with diocese attorneys again next week to go over the agreement again.

Fred Allison, spokesman for the Tucson diocese, said that on the surface it does not appear that anything in the agreement violates either civil or church law.

In fact, Allison said, most of the provisions on how allegations of sexual misconduct by church officials will be handled mirrors the protocols set out last year by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. He that makes O'Brien's agreement to live by those protocols to satisfy Romley much ado about nothing.

O'Brien said basically the same thing, saying much of what was in the pact already was church policy.

But what is not part of those protocols is the requirement that O'Brien appoint a moderator of the curia -- essentially a chief of staff -- who would be solely responsible for the "revision, enforcement and application" of the sexual misconduct policy.

O'Brien insisted in interviews Tuesday he had not given up any powers. But Romley shot back Wednesday that the bishop no longer has any say of what happens when there is a suspected case where a priest has abused a child.

Allison said the key is whether the state is telling the church how to deal with spiritual and religious matters. He said the church "lives in a secular world" and has to live by secular laws.

"There is nothing in this agreement that would constitute a violation of canon law or a violation of how the church would judge it as a violation of its own rights," he said.

Allison noted, though, that a requirement in the agreement that the diocese to pay at least $600,000 to programs to counsel and compensate victims of child abuse is unprecedented. He said any funds paid by the Tucson diocese are strictly between the church and any families.

Romley said he was sensitive to questions of government interference in religion.

"Absent the most extraordinary of circumstances, government should stay out of the church," he said.

"But these are extraordinary circumstances," Romley said.

He said there have been multiple situations where priests accused of molesting children have been moved without the officials of the new parish being told of the charges. And some of these priests then ended up preying on other children.

"I felt this was the best way to put some assurances, some protocols in place within the church so that the abuse that has been occurring regularly will stop," he said.

Allison said that the actions of the Tucson diocese amid allegations of sexual misconduct were all taken without any formal and legally binding agreement with prosecutors. That included the Vatican's appointment of a coadjutar -- essentially a bishop in waiting -- for Bishop Miguel Moreno, with Moreno requesting retirement earlier this year.

A side issue is whether O'Brien has signed an agreement that could be seen to bind his successors.

Bill FitzGerald, a spokesman for the Maricopa County Attorney's Office, said the purpose of the agreement was to deal with problems resulting from O'Brien's actions -- or lack thereof -- in handling allegations of sexual misconduct. He the pact accomplishes the immediate goal of taking O'Brien out of the loop on these issues.

At a separate press conference Wednesday, a group of lawmakers, mostly Hispanic, called on O'Brien to step down. They said his actions -- and the written admission by the bishop -- show a lack of leadership.

Rep. Ben Miranda, D-Phoenix, also said there has been a pattern where priests accused of molesting children have been reassigned in disproportionate numbers to largely Hispanic parishes.

FitzGerald said his office has not charted each of the reassignments. But he said that appears to be a trend.

O'Brien, in a prepared statement, said he is "saddened that a few people have chosen to cast stones from the outside rather than join us at the table to help make our diocese stronger." O'Brien said he will be meeting with Hispanic leaders, headed by Maricopa County Supervisor Mary Rose Wilcox "to discuss concerns about our Latino parishes and develop strategies to improve them."

Wilcox said she doesn't know where priests were reassigned but said she believes O'Brien will address that in meetings with the community. She said it is not surprising that many priests wind up in Hispanic parishes as Phoenix is a largely Hispanic diocese.

She said O'Brien already has instituted many changes in the church on sexual abuse and she believes the deal with Romley will result in more. The supervisor said she prefers to work with diocesan officials to see that these are implemented.


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