Church Changes Praised at Sex Abuse Summit

By Lawn Griffiths
East Valley Tribune [Phoenix AZ]
Downloaded May 21, 2004

Maricopa County Attorney Richard Romley said Thursday he is confident the Roman Catholic Diocese of Phoenix has largely completed the needed steps to protect children from sexual misconduct by priests and church workers.

"We have turned a corner, and I am confident that this will no longer occur within the Catholic Church," Romley said as he opened a daylong Summit on Sexual Abuse in Phoenix. The event was held to educate diocesan staff, public and private employers to identify and deal with sexual misconduct against children.

In 2002, as misconduct scandals grew in the diocese and across the nation, Romley’s office launched a major investigation into three decades of diocesan and parish records and police reports. Nineteen priests employed since 1952 in the diocese were accused of abusing children, while incidents involving dozens of other employees also surfaced.

Romley, who had often publicly criticized former Bishop Thomas J. O’Brien for failing to fully cooperate in the investigation, lauded Bishop Thomas J. Olmsted, who succeeded O’Brien in December.

"I am very pleased with what has happened the last year," Romley said. "I see a major change in the church. I do believe Bishop Olmsted is sincere and really wanting to make changes." Romley and Olmsted said Thursday’s summit at a north Phoenix conference center was historic in that it was jointly sponsored by the diocese and the county attorney’s office. The training forum had been mandated as part of an agreement O’Brien and Romley announced in June for prevention of pedophilia.

"I am coming to the point where I am believing that the terms of the agreement have been met," Romley told the 350 attendees. "For some sentimental reason, I do believe in the good work of the Catholic Church."

Olmsted listed a series of safeguards now in place, including revisions of misconduct policies, mandatory diocesewide training, videos to educate laity and the establishment of the Youth Protection Advocate office, headed by Jennifer O’Connor.

He said he continues to meet with victims and their families in the "long process of healing and new hope."

Keynote speaker Kathleen McChesney, who heads the Office for Child and Youth Protection for the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, drew from four national reports on Catholic misconduct produced in the past two years to give an overview of the scope of the scandals.

In a two-year period, ending last December, more than 700 priests and deacons were removed from ministry in the United States "based on credible allegations," she said. Acknowledging that underreporting is pervasive when sexual misconduct occurs, McChesney said one study found 10,667 boys and girls abused by priests and deacons from 1950 to 2002.

"Make no mistake, the work is not done," McChesney said, calling for more analysis of misconduct cases, better screening and teaching of seminarians and fail-safe accountability across the church.