Clergy, Congregation Work to Move Past Ex-Bishop's Troubles

By Doug Cook
The Daily Courier [Prescott Valley AZ]
Downloaded June 22, 2003

PRESCOTT VALLEY - Father John Shetler held back tears on Wednesday when he spoke of the sudden resignation of former Bishop Thomas O'Brien as head of the Roman Catholic diocese of Phoenix.

His emotion was a sign of the strain that Shetler and others in the church are enduring as a result of allegations that O'Brien covered for sexually abusive priests for years, and that he fled the scene of a fatal hit-and-run accident this past weekend in Phoenix. But Shetler, nearing his fourth year as pastor of Prescott Valley's St. Germaine parish, prefers to focus on healing.

Courier/Jo. L. Keener

Father John Shetler of St. Germaine Catholic Church poses by the cross at the entrance. Shetler says he is focused on healing after the troubles of former Bishop Thomas O'Brien, who resigned this week. "I'm numb about it," Shetler said. "But this will help the church heal and move on."

Many Catholics are thankful that O'Brien is gone, and have a strong sense that the faith will overcome its troubles.

Tony Feicco, a 68-year-old Catholic, said he's seen his friends grow stronger in the faith as a result of the crisis.

"Through the centuries, there's always been obstacles," Feicco said after Friday morning Mass at St. Germaine. "And if it's not religious, it's political."

Robert Obenhauf, 82, and his wife of four years, Betty, are saddened by the church's problems but remain faithful.

"The church will be stronger than ever, especially in attendance," Robert said, adding that the bishop's resignation was appropriate.

O'Brien, 67, had received support throughout the crisis from the Catholic clergy and the faith's tight-knit community, but Shetler said he respects the decision of Pope John Paul II to accept the bishop's resignation.

"I won't second-guess the pope," he said.

Shetler was hesitant to comment on O'Brien's guilt or innocence in the hit-and-run accident that killed pedestrian Jim Reed. But he did say that if O'Brien left the scene of a fatal accident, he won't - and shouldn't - get preferential treatment.

While he is reserving judgment in that case until all of the facts are available, Shetler is not reticent about O'Brien's policy of transferring sexually abusive priests from one parish to another without reprimanding them.

Shetler said O'Brien was very compassionate toward troubled priests, and was willing to take repentant priests at their word if they stated they wouldn't re-offend.

Today, Shetler said priests must conform to a much higher standard. Now, when a parishioner accuses a priest of abuse, the diocese removes him from the parish until the allegations get a thorough investigation.

"These are difficult times to be a priest," Shetler said. "We need to find the truth in all of this and bring compassion to all concerned."

In order for the Catholic faith to heal, Shetler and other priests in the tri-city area are concentrating on the continued celebration of Mass and administering to the needs of the community's physically ill.

"I'm very proud of what I've done in the last 11 years as a priest," Shetler said. "That work needs to continue."


Shetler said O'Brien had been taking proactive steps to halt abuse before Maricopa County Attorney Rick Romley stepped in to prosecute the church's scandal.

Investigators recently opened priests' files, he said, and one case of inappropriate behavior was enough to remove a priest from his parish.

The bishop was "really trying to do a thorough job of clearing the house," Shetler said. "There's no easy solution to this."

Shetler believes that a zero tolerance policy is appropriate in the Phoenix diocese.

Feicco and his wife Connie agreed, with the former saying abusive priests should be "weeded out."

"There should be zero tolerance in any walk of life for that - not just the church, but everywhere," Connie said.

To further deal with the situation, Shetler thinks that professional counselors, either in a group or one-on-one setting, should be made readily available through a church program to treat all victims of sexual abuse so that they can reclaim their lives.

Shetler said abuse is a pervasive problem in the United States, and that the focus should not be solely on the woes of the priesthood.

"We need to educate ourselves, and find professionals that deal with this to remove the veil of secrecy," Shetler said. "We've got to (deal with sexual abuse) across the board."


In the Catholic faith, St. Germaine is the patron saint of abused women and children. Shetler's parish will celebrate the Feast of St. Germaine, which was earlier this month, in late June.

To honor the saint, Shetler will provide educational information to his parish about the signs of sexual abuse. With the help of the Family Advocacy Center, a local counseling group, Shetler hopes to raise the consciousness of abuse with the community and identify and help victims of abuse in confidence.

"These are complicated issues," said Shetler, adding that parents must know at all times who is watching their children. "We need to find help for people who have these attractions."


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