O'Brien's Policies Reversed
N.M. Archbishop Aims to Heal Rifts
By Joseph A. Reaves and Fred Bayles
The Arizona Republic and USA Today
June 21, 2003
Archbishop Michael J. Sheehan, new caretaker for the troubled Phoenix Diocese, outlined a "blueprint" for healing on Friday that reverses many of the policies in place under resigned Bishop Thomas J. O'Brien.
Sheehan vowed to cooperate fully with civil authorities, aggressively remove troubled clergy and meet one on one with victims of sexual abuse by priests to apologize for their suffering.
"We can't change the past, but we can do a lot for the future," Sheehan told a dozen reporters attending the U.S. Catholic Conference of Bishops meeting at the Hyatt Regency Hotel in St. Louis.
Sheehan, archbishop of Santa Fe, saw his duties expanded to include the Phoenix Diocese this week after O'Brien was charged in a fatal hit-and-run accident and resigned. Sheehan will serve as apostolic administrator until a new Phoenix bishop is named, a process expected to take six to 12 months.
"I'll be going back and forth every week," Sheehan said. "I guess I'll be known as the rent-a-bishop."
That quip is typical of Sheehan, whose easygoing style and quick sense of humor are in contrast to O'Brien's generally shy, gentle manner.
Sheehan met with O'Brien earlier this week and said Friday that the resigned bishop "can't sleep and needs medication."
"He also needs our prayers and probably needs some hospitalization at some point," Sheehan said. "I told him of the prayers of the brother bishops and told him he needed help with his health."
Friends and aides who visited O'Brien at his north-central Phoenix home Friday described his physical and mental state as "alarming." Some of those same friends said he had become increasingly despondent since June 2, when details about an immunity agreement he signed were made public.
Under that agreement, O'Brien acknowledged sheltering priests accused of sexual offenses and allowing them to work with children. In return for those admissions and several other concessions, Maricopa County Attorney Rick Romley agreed not to prosecute O'Brien for obstruction of justice in his handling of sex abuse cases.
The agreement also contained provisions that prevent the bishop of the Phoenix Diocese from direct involvement in investigating sexual abuse claims against priests. It compelled the diocese to appoint a new chief of staff and an independent youth protection advocate to deal with those cases.
Sheehan said Friday that he intends to honor the terms of that agreement.
"I got in touch almost immediately with the county attorney and told him I would be able to work and cooperate with him," Sheehan said.
"I didn't see any reason not to agree with what was decided before. I don't think it would be necessary to make any changes."
Sheehan has a reputation of cooperation with law enforcement officials.
He was appointed archbishop of Santa Fe in 1993 when the church in New Mexico was in the midst of its own sex abuse scandal.
Bob Schwartz, chief prosecutor in Santa Fe from 1988 to 1996, said that when Sheehan became archbishop, all the "shuck and jive" about sexual abuse cases suddenly ended.
"He brought a new perspective of cooperation," Schwartz said. "He really did a hell of a job."
Sheehan removed 20 priests accused of sexual abuse and began a series of one-on-one meetings with victims of sexual abuse, something O'Brien has been reluctant to do on the advice of his lawyers.
"I apologized to victims, sometimes in my office, sometimes on the phone, sometimes in their homes," Sheehan said Friday.
"I felt like I needed to act like a priest. I felt it was better to make a mistake of being conciliatory rather than listen to the lawyers."
Sheehan said the personal meetings were sometimes painful but almost always positive.
"Of the 150 victims I talked to, it was about 95 percent positive," he said. "They were grateful for the effort and responsive to what I said.
"I said I was sorry that it happened, and I would do everything I could to prevent it from happening again."
Sheehan has prepared a letter to be read to the Phoenix faithful at all Masses starting tonight. He's expected to reassure Catholics about the future and rally them around their faith.
"Don't put your faith in the bishop," he said Friday. "Put your faith in the sacraments and the Lord."
He will be back in the Valley on Monday to meet with priests of the diocese.
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