Bishop's Fall Slow, Painful

Joseph A. Reaves
The Arizona Republic [Phoenix AZ]
June 19, 2003

For three excruciating hours Tuesday afternoon, Bishop Thomas J. O'Brien refused to accept the inevitable.

He sat, shoulders slumped, eyes moist, all but begging to keep his job.

Several times in the past year, he considered walking away from the mounting pressure. But now that the moment was at hand, now that the Vatican had sent word he was hurting more than helping, O'Brien couldn't bring himself to resign.

Church insiders who reconstructed the scene said the sad job of convincing him fell to Monsignor Dale Fushek, one of two vicars general of the Phoenix Diocese.

Just before noon Tuesday, the pope's chief representative in the United States called Archbishop Michael J. Sheehan in Santa Fe. Sheehan, who would take over as head of the Phoenix Diocese less than a day later, then called Fushek and told him the Vatican had decided to demand O'Brien's resignation.

Fushek headed to O'Brien's north Phoenix home where, during the course of the day, the bishop's sister and several of his closest friends and advisers took part in the crucial discussions.

Among those who had thoughts on the subject were Sister Mary Ann Winters, chancellor of the diocese; Michael Diskin, assistant chancellor; and Greg Leisse, longtime attorney for the diocese. The three have played a core role in the church's handling of sex abuse cases.

Also there was Monsignor Richard Moyer, co-vicar general and recently named chief of staff of the diocese.

But all eyes were on Fushek. He tried to convince O'Brien the end was at hand. And after several hours, he finally got through by convincing the bishop it wasn't really the end.

You will still be a bishop, he told O'Brien. You will always be a bishop. You just won't be bishop of the Phoenix Diocese.

In the end, O'Brien relented. He wept. And 54 years after he entered a seminary school, he agreed to step down.

14 months of turmoil

The dramatic events came just hours after a crowded news conference in downtown Phoenix where Maricopa County Attorney Rick Romley announced he had filed criminal charges against O'Brien, accusing him of fleeing the scene of a fatal hit-and-run accident last week. O'Brien was the first Roman Catholic bishop in the United States formally charged with a felony.

But the call from the Vatican had been in the making long before Romley stepped in front of 16 television cameras and several dozen reporters to read the charges.

In many ways, the call was the result of 14 months of turmoil as O'Brien grappled with a barrage of unrelenting pressure.

The beginning of the end came May 6, 2002, when a Scottsdale priest admitted he fathered a child nearly a quarter-century earlier with a parishioner who went to him for grief counseling.

Within weeks, the story shifted from the priest's infidelities to O'Brien's role in covering up for sexual molesters. On May 22, a confidential psychological evaluation of the priest was leaked to the media. The report showed that the priest was allowed to work with women and children even after therapists warned he was likely to reoffend.

"Given the number and nature of complaints over the years, it is reasonable to anticipate that history will be repeated in some way," the therapists wrote in a 1999 evaluation sent to one of O'Brien's top aides.

One day after that damning evidence was made public, Romley announced a "preliminary inquiry" into how the church hierarchy dealt with sexual complaints. A week later, the inquiry was escalated to a full-scale investigation.

Romley has described the revelations his deputies uncovered in the next 13 months as "a death by a thousand cuts." And, surely, O'Brien would agree.

Haunting history

Time and again, the bishop wrestled with allegations, accusations, implications and denunciations, almost all of them dealing with events of long ago. Decisions made decades ago came back to haunt him and his church.

There was the altar boy who grew up to be a police lieutenant. He and his parents remembered reporting a predator priest in 1980 and being scolded by O'Brien to keep silent.

There was the letter from Boston's Cardinal Law indicating he sent troubled priests to O'Brien because Phoenix was one of "dioceses with policies that are less restrictive than ours."

And there were the numbers that showed sexually abusive priests tended to show up time and again in Hispanic parishes, where the faithful are generally considered less questioning.

In between, there were moments of candor and confession.

O'Brien vowed a year ago this month to "lead the nation" in ridding the diocese of sex offenders.

He apologized last summer, last fall, last Christmas and this spring for any harm he may have caused.

Through it all, through the seemingly endless weeks of crisis and the all-too-rare spells of calm, friends and aides say O'Brien suffered. He slipped steadily deeper into despair.

Destined for priesthood

The day O'Brien was born in Indiana, his mother said she wanted him to be a priest. At age 13, he took the first steps to fulfill her dreams when he entered a seminary school. For the next 54 years, his life was shaped and sheltered by a cloistered world of men who taught him how to gather power and how to use it.

That world was all O'Brien had known. And when it started to crumble, so did he.

In April, friends say he became distraught when Romley threatened to bring him before a grand jury to testify about his handling of a sex abuse case that seemed certain to lead to a charge of obstructing justice.

The only way out of what seemed a nightmare for O'Brien was to sign an extraordinary immunity deal. In return for two painful admissions and several concessions, Romley would agree not to prosecute the bishop.

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

O'Brien signed the agreement twice on May 3 in the presence of his attorneys. He signed once as an individual and once as the head of the Phoenix Diocese.

The statement amounted to an admission he concealed sexual abuse for decades and that his actions put children at risk.

That agreement remained secret for a month while a grand jury finished a series of investigations that led to the indictments of six priests who served under O'Brien.

On June 2, a day before the indictments were announced, The Arizona Republic reported the details of O'Brien's admissions. The bishop was staggered. A member of his inner circle said he was devastated to see a front-page headline that read: "Bishop O'Brien admits cover-up in handling of sexual abuse cases."

Shock, depression

The bishop first slipped into shock and depression, then came out fighting. He called his closest aides and issued a statement downplaying his admissions. He granted a series of media interviews for the first time in a year and appealed to parishioners to rally round him and the church.

O'Brien's counteroffensive never gained momentum. Criticism mounted. Calls for his resignation swelled. And the bishop grew more and more depressed.

During an interview with The Republic on June 4, O'Brien looked exhausted and shaken. A week later, he looked worse.

Then came the darkest days of the darkest year of his life.

On Saturday night, driving home alone from a confirmation ceremony, the bishop's car hit something on Glendale Avenue in north Phoenix. Investigators later determined O'Brien's champagne-colored 2003 Buick Park Avenue sedan was the first of two vehicles to hit a jaywalking pedestrian.

The bishop didn't stop. He kept driving.

O'Brien never reported the incident. He went home Saturday night. He spent most of Sunday at a Father's Day pool party at his sister's house, then spent the night there. Parked at her house was his car, with a shattered windshield.

Some time that day, Fushek called him. Fushek is both O'Brien's friend and the bishop's second-in-command.

Police tracked Fushek down Sunday to tell him a witness to a hit-and-run accident had copied down a license plate and the tags were registered to the Phoenix Diocese.

Fushek told investigators the diocese had several cars that matched the description, including O'Brien's. But he didn't know the license plate and couldn't find out for sure until Monday morning.

Fushek called O'Brien on Sunday and told him the police were investigating a fatal hit-and-run accident.

O'Brien still didn't call police.

24 hours of hell

By Monday morning, the police went to O'Brien's house. They knocked for a long time. He didn't answer. Finally, his maid came to the door and let the police in.

Investigators later learned that O'Brien tried to make arrangements to have his windshield fixed Monday morning. He admitted he had been driving the car Saturday night and that he hit something but thought it was a dog or a cat or maybe someone had thrown a rock at his windshield.

The next 24 hours were hell.

O'Brien was arrested. He was taken in disgrace to Madison Street Jail to be booked. His heart almost couldn't take it. O'Brien's blood pressure shot up so high he had to taken to St. Joseph's Hospital and Medical Center in Phoenix.

After a few hours rest, he went back to Madison Street Jail and finished the torture he started earlier in the day. He was booked, printed and mugged like a million others before him. But, unlike the others, he was a bishop, the first bishop in the United States charged with a felony.

The legal charge, however, may prove to be less important than his actions on Saturday night. O'Brien's career ended the moment he drove away from a dying man.


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