Sides Will Try to Interpret O'Brien Deal

By Joseph A. Reaves
The Arizona Republic
June 5, 2003

Attorneys for the Phoenix Diocese and Maricopa County Attorney's Office will meet next week to try to reconcile conflicting interpretations of the legal agreement they drafted granting criminal immunity to Bishop Thomas O'Brien.

That document, which O'Brien signed May 3, has spawned a firestorm of controversy and confusion since it was made public Monday.

Both sides agree on one thing: The goal of the document is to protect children from sexual abuse by priests.

At issue, though, is another equally emotional concern: the power of the church vs. the state.

O'Brien made his position clear this week.

"I serve at the pleasure of the pope and not the county attorney," he stressed in his first public comment on the agreement.

The bishop wasn't appearing defiant so much as simply acknowledging his faith.

But that faith lies at the heart of some of the conflicting statements that have made headlines in recent days.

"The O'Brien settlement does, indeed, raise legal issues, and issues of church authority, credibility and legitimacy," said Carolyn Warner, an associate professor of political science at Arizona State University, who studies the church.

"Is the church a higher moral authority than the state? If so, what can the state do when the church violates, or is accused of violating, the state's laws?"

Warner said the immunity agreement could be perceived as diminishing the church's authority over its own hierarchy and the priesthood.

"I think that is why O'Brien almost reversed himself in his statement to the public in June 2, after the settlement was released," she said. "It is also one reason the pope did not accept O'Brien's offer to resign."

Romley tried for months to get the bishop to resign. When that failed, he said, he was forced to decide whether to indict O'Brien on charges of obstruction of justice or offer immunity.

"I chose the promise of the future over the tragedies of the past," Romley said. "I got an unprecedented agreement, an agreement that contained both a clear admission of responsibility and an enforceable promise of change."

But both the admission and the promise now seem to be in question.

O'Brien acknowledged he allowed priests under his supervision to have contact with minors after becoming aware of allegations of criminal misconduct. He also admitted he "transferred offending priests to situations where children could be further victimized."

Hours after the statement was released, though, he insisted he "never intentionally placed a child in harm's way."

The bishop promised to set up an independent chain of command to investigate allegations of sexual abuse, then made it clear church law requires him to have final authority over those cases.

Some legal experts said the bishop could make the seemingly contrasting comments because the agreement he signed was less than perfect.

"The agreement is very short, and many details are lacking," said Eric Macleish, a Boston attorney who specializes in sexual abuse cases against the church.

Macleish called the agreement a "setback" because Romley failed to negotiate the public release of church documents that accompanied recent settlements in New Hampshire and Boston.

But other legal experts praised the agreement. They said O'Brien's most recent comments appeared either to be an attempt to control the damage from his admissions or to ease the concerns of senior church officials that he was giving up too much.

"I think the agreement the county attorney got was a win-win," said Michael Manning, who represented O'Brien and the diocese until last December. "It's not perfect for either side, but it's good for the diocese, for the bishop, for the County Attorney's Office and for the parents and children of the county."

Manning disagreed with Macleish's assessment that the deal was lacking in details.

"As a lawyer reading it, not involved in the negotiations, it seems like a very clear agreement," Manning said. "I think in a week or so, both sides will realize that after things calm down a bit."

Romley said Wednesday that he hoped the same.

"Quite frankly, I'm perplexed by some of the bishop's statements," he said.

"It's clear to me that there is some wordsmithing going on, but I don't believe there can be any doubt about the legal points of the agreement. We will sit down next week and work this all out."

Reporters Dennis Wagner and Chip Scutari contributed to this article.

Reach Reaves at (602) 444-8125.


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