Church and State in Phoenix

By Father Richard P. McBrien
The Tidings [Arizona]
July 25, 2003

Thomas J. O'Brien resigned last month as bishop of Phoenix, following his arrest for leaving the scene of a fatal accident. Just a few weeks earlier, he had signed an historic Agreement with the Maricopa County Attorney on behalf of the State of Arizona.

In that Agreement the bishop, in essence, cooperated with the state in changing his episcopal job description --- a structural change that no amount of pressure from within the church has as yet been able to achieve.

First, the canonical official known as the Moderator of the Curia would have "the responsibility for dealing with issues that arise relating to the revision, enforcement and application of the sexual misconduct policy" that will be operative throughout the diocese. The bishop would not have the authority to overrule or otherwise modify decisions in these matters taken by the Moderator of the Curia.

What particularly upset many Catholics in Arizona was the bishop's refusal in a subsequent news conference to admit that he had committed any crime or that he had even done anything wrong.

Second, a newly created position of Youth Protection Advocate shall have responsibility "for the implementation and enforcement of the policy on sexual misconduct by Diocesan personnel," in compliance with "all applicable federal, state and local laws regarding the reporting of incidents of actual, alleged, or suspected sexual misconduct without restriction."

"The decisions of the Youth Protection Advocate to report allegations of sexual abuse to Child Protective Services or law enforcement is to be made by the Youth Protection Advocate independently and not subject to the consent of [Bishop] Thomas J. O'Brien, or any other Diocesan personnel."

Third, with input from the Maricopa County Attorney's office, a "special counsel" was to have been employed within 60 days of the signing of the Agreement. This attorney is to serve as counsel for the Youth Protection Advocate, and whatever advice is rendered to the Advocate "will not be subject to approval by anyone within the Diocese including, but not limited to, Thomas J. O'Brien or any other priest."

Fourth, before the diocesan policy on sexual misconduct is to be considered final, it is to be reviewed and modified as necessary, with input from the Maricopa County Attorney's office and the general public.

There are other, largely financial, terms in this Agreement, but these four represent the most obviously intrusive initiatives taken by the State of Arizona into the internal affairs of the Diocese of Phoenix and into the exercise of local episcopal authority.

As David Gibson pointed out in a recent op-ed piece in The New York Times, "If church leaders continue to stonewall, then prosecutors will force them, at the point of an indictment, into compromises that will in the long run do more to undermine the church's structure and spirit" (June 7).

Bishop O'Brien had to agree to these extraordinary terms as a condition of escaping criminal indictment and a possible prison term. "I do believe," Maricopa County Attorney Rick Romley said, "there was sufficient evidence to indict Bishop Thomas O'Brien for obstruction of justice." He pointed out that the penalty on conviction would likely have ranged from probation to a 2.5-year prison sentence, plus possibly a fine.

Under the terms of the Agreement, the bishop was compelled to acknowledge in a written public statement that "he allowed Roman Catholic priests under his supervision to have contact with minors after becoming aware of allegations of criminal sexual misconduct," and that he transferred these "offending priests to situations where children could be further victimized."

Both admissions were in direct contradiction to the bishop's previously repeated denials and assurances on the matter. In other words, he had lied to cover up crimes committed by his priests.

What particularly upset many Catholics in Arizona was the bishop's refusal in a subsequent news conference to admit that he had committed any crime or that he had even done anything wrong. While he pledged to deal forthrightly with sexual abuse in the future, he expressed no apparent contrition or guilt over his role in allowing sexual abuse to have occurred in the past.

A poll conducted by a local television station showed that a majority of viewers favored the bishop's resignation, even before the tragic auto accident. According to news reports, Bishop O'Brien did try to submit his resignation to the pope before signing the Agreement with the State of Arizona, but was informed by the Apostolic Nuncio, Archbishop Gabriel Montalvo, that it would not be accepted.

A similar situation existed in Boston last year. It was said that Cardinal Law's first offer of resignation was refused because the Vatican did not want to appear vulnerable to the pressure of public opinion.

Obviously, the Vatican waited too long in both cases. As a result, the church's spirit and structural integrity suffered even further erosion.

Father Richard P. McBrien is the Crowley-O'Brien Professor of Theology at the University of Notre Dame.


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