Catholic Leaders Hope End of Bishop's Trial Will Allow More Focus

By Michelle Rushlo [Phoenix AZ]
February 18, 2004

PHOENIX Leaders of the Phoenix Diocese say that while they are saddened by the conviction of Bishop Thomas O'Brien on a fatal hit-and-run charge, the trial's conclusion has given the diocese some relief and may give them more energy to move the church forward.

Even before the trial, the Catholic diocese was buffeted by a sex abuse scandal and several leadership changes.

The church's day-to-day activities the soup kitchens, the youth work, its teachings haven't changed during the crises, but its leadership has been unable to focus on much besides the troubles of O'Brien and the diocese, said Monsignor Dale Fushek, the diocese's co-vicar general.

He said Wednesday that he hopes the leadership will now be able to devote more energy to vision and to finding new ways to reach out to people.

"We're totally into the resurrection. I'm an optimist. Things are always getting better," he said.

Diocese spokeswoman Mary Jo West said despite the sadness, there is a feeling of relief that the trial is over.

"It's giving us a finish line," she said. "Of course, the next bump in the road is the sentencing."

O'Brien faces between probation and three years and nine months in prison for leaving the scene of the fatal accident that killed pedestrian Jim Reed, 43. No sentencing date has been set.

O'Brien's June arrest and subsequent resignation as head of the Phoenix diocese came just as it appeared his career would survive an unprecedented immunity deal to avoid prosecution for protecting priests accused of sexual abuse. The deal was announced about two weeks before the accident.

For months before the deal was announced, diocesan officials, including O'Brien, had been locked in a bitter dispute with Maricopa County Attorney Rick Romley over documents and other material sought in the sex abuse investigation.

"Obviously all these things affect us, but they are not the only things that affect us," said Bishop Thomas Olmsted, who became the permanent leader of the diocese in December.

The faith of Catholics has given them the strength to face the future, Olmsted said during a news conference Tuesday after the verdict.

West said most of the diocese's 480,000 Catholics, while aware of O'Brien's troubles, have not altered their worship practices. Some have been frustrated and angry, and a few have left the church.

But she and Fushek also said the installation of Olmsted has helped win back the confidence of some.

Olmsted has "refocused things on a much more spiritual level," said Fushek. "People are very much taken by his holiness."

For six months prior to Olmsted's arrival, the church was under the leadership of Santa Fe Archbishop Michael Sheehan, who helped the diocese put in place policies required nationally because of the abuse scandal.

Even though he sometimes jokingly referred to himself as a "rent-a-bishop," Sheehan "really helped us pull together in some of the challenges we faced for the sexual abuse policies that had to be in place," West said.

Fushek said despite all the changes, most Catholics have not had their faith shaken by the turmoil.

"My sense is that people have been able to separate individuals from the church as a whole," he said.

Aletha Lewis, a lifelong Catholic who was leaving St. Mary's Basilica on Wednesday, agreed.

"Most Catholics are realists. We know that the priests who represent us are human beings," she said.

While some Catholics have used the church's troubles as an excuse to leave the church, the faith of others has increased as they've witnessed the church's resilience, she said.

"The church is moving on," Lewis said. "They're doing what the church is supposed to do in spite of this."


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