Catholics Take Sides on Bishop's Role in Sex Scandal

By Marshall Terrill and Jennifer Voges and Georgann Yara
Ahwatuke Foothills [Arizona]
Downloaded June 07, 2003

Roman Catholics had no shortage of opinions about this week's announced agreement between their bishop and the Maricopa County Attorney's Office addressing sexual misconduct by priests and suggesting a cover-up by the bishop.

"Our bishop does the best he can and he's working with God," said Mary Ann Wilmowski, a member of Corpus Christi Catholic Church in Ahwatukee Foothills.

"He's a good bishop."

For 40-year-old Joe Perre, "It's a sad day for the church, but it's also a new beginning."

"It's a step forward from the Catholic church's old policy of sweeping these types of offenses under the rug," said the Chandler resident who attends St. Timothy's Catholic Community in Mesa.

County Attorney Rick Romley announced indictments against six priests on Monday and outlined details of an agreement with Bishop Thomas J. O'Brien.

The agreement promised the bishop immunity from prosecution in return for several concessions from the church, among which are for the church to pay counseling expenses for victims of sexual abuse by priests and for the bishop to delegate "the responsibility for dealing with issues that arise relating to the revision, enforcement and application of the sexual misconduct policy."

When making his announcement, Romley said the church had lost its moral compass and that there was enough evidence to bring charges against O'Brien for obstruction of justice.

Within hours, O'Brien was on television insisting that he had done nothing wrong.

"Have I committed a crime? No," said a defiant O'Brien, who challenged any insinuation that he participated in a cover-up.

"To suggest a cover-up is just plain false."

His comments were made despite signing a statement that read in part: "I acknowledge that I allowed Roman Catholic priests under my supervision to work with minors after becoming aware of allegations of sexual misconduct."

Monday's announcement developed into a war of words that as of Thursday placed the legal agreement in jeopardy.

The battle has occupied the conversations of church members.

"I always look at it as trying to forgive (Bishop O'Brien)," said Christina Difrancesco a member of Corpus Christi. "This is what we're taught to forgive."

Difrancesco said she would not judge O'Brien, that is for God to do.

Father R. (Rob) Clements, who was ordained by O'Brien 13 years ago, said Monday's announcement was a sad day for the church.

"I'm deeply saddened for any and all victims and their families, and I feel terrible for the bishop himself," said Clements, who has served as pastor of St. Mary's Catholic Church in Chandler since March 1999.

He added that the agreement between O'Brien and the county attorney is a mark of progress.

"When the truth comes out, things get better," Clements said. "It's a step in the right direction."

The 14-point agreement, signed by Romley and O'Brien, requires the Phoenix Diocese to pay $700,000 and take responsibility for dealing with sexual misconduct allegations out of the bishop's hands, creating several new church positions instead.

It also creates a Diocesan Victim Assistance Panel to review past allegations of abuse and approve counseling up to $50,000 per victim, even if the statute of limitations may have lapsed.

If any part of the agreement is breached, the agreement would become null and void and Romley said he would initiate criminal proceedings against O'Brien.

Chandler resident James Bogash, who got married at St. Mary's Catholic Church in 2001, suggested the county attorney should have been tougher.

"He (O'Brien) should be booted out on his ass and then picked up on the street by the county attorney and prosecuted," Bogash said. "It's almost condoning it."

For one East Valley pastor, the injustice currently being committed is by the media, which he believes has treated the bishop unfairly, putting O'Brien "behind the eight-ball."

Father John Hanley said he is frustrated with how the state's largest newspaper and the Valley's top news station has dealt with the situation. He also expressed dissatisfaction with Romley's conclusions.

"I'm not saying he has all of his facts wrong, but he can put a slant on the facts. I know some of the facts he stated are totally, totally wrong," said Hanley, who has headed Tempe's Holy Spirit Church for 12 years.

Holy Spirit is one of four parishes that feed into St. John Bosco Interparish Catholic School, Ahwatukee Foothills' only Catholic school that serves students in grades kindergarten to eight.

Hanley also disagrees with the county attorney's attitude, saying, "Romley is trying to dictate the bishop should resign, period. To me, that's totally wrong, that's not his job."

Hanley urges Catholics and non-Catholics to look past bias and opinions and focus on facts.

"They should take the time, not rush to judgment, discern who is speaking and what they are saying. I don't think anyone of us can get away from the fact that Romley is political," Hanley said.

He also affirmed his confidence in O'Brien as leader of the Valley's Catholic churches.

"I'm very strongly in favor of Bishop O'Brien. I accept our bishop. I believe him, I trust him," he said, adding that the bishop's only flaw was being human.

"All of us in our lives, we've all sometimes made errors in judgment, and therefore that's the kind of situation that the Bishop has run into."

-- Staff writer Doug Murphy contributed to this article.

Staff writers Marshall Terrill can be reached at (480) 898-4903 or; Jenny Voges at (480) 898-7916 or; Georgann Yara at (480) 898-7917 or; Doug Murphy at (480) 898-7914 or


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