20 years after Bishop O’Brien’s sex abuse cover-up and deadly hit-and-run, have Catholics in Phoenix healed?

America [New York NY]

June 14, 2023

By J.D. Long-García

In the summer of 2003, Bishop Thomas J. O’Brien of the Diocese of Phoenix admitted to transferring priests accused of sexual abuse to other parishes. The parish communities that received these priests did not know about the accusations, and in many cases, the bishop transferred priests to poor, Latino parishes.

By signing a statement admitting the cover-up on June 2, 2003, Bishop O’Brien avoided being prosecuted by Maricopa County. It appeared to onlookers that he would retain his post as the bishop of Phoenix.

But that changed less than two weeks later. On June 14, Bishop O’Brien climbed into his Buick after celebrating a Saturday Vigil Mass. On his way home, his car struck 43-year-old Jim L. Reed, who was jaywalking. Mr. Reed, a six-foot-tall man who weighed around 250 pounds, shattered the bishop’s windshield.

But Bishop O’Brien did not stop driving, and Mr. Reed died. The bishop resigned four days later. A jury convicted him of leaving the scene of a fatal car accident the following spring.

Have we healed from this tragic sequence of events? As a Catholic in the Phoenix diocese, I’ve been reflecting on that question a lot this month, 20 years after Bishop O’Brien admitted to the cover-up.

To be clear, I am not referring to the healing of survivors of sexual abuse and their loved ones. I have an experience of that myself, and I believe the road to healing can last a lifetime. I do not want to in any way deemphasize those deep wounds. My question in this case is about communal healing in the wake of the broader scandal. All Catholics in the Diocese of Phoenix, on some level, felt the sting of the sexual abuse crisis and the shortcomings of church leaders. Dozens of priests and deacons were accused, leading many of us to question our faith. Have we come to terms with it?

The scandal hits home

Since this is a deeply personal question for me, I decided to explore it by interviewing people I know from different parishes in the diocese. I spoke to four women, all of whom are mothers. If mothers had been consulted during the crisis, surely it would have been handled differently. These conversations felt like part interview, part therapy.

I started with Diane Saunders, a long-time family friend, who has played a role in faith formation in several parishes in the Diocese of Phoenix. She has worked for the church in California and Oregon and is pursuing graduate studies at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley.

“Have we healed? Absolutely not,” Diane told me. “We have a broken system, a system that can’t correct itself. And if it can’t correct itself, it can’t heal. And healing is everything. That’s what we’re missing.”

Years ago, when traveling to other states for Catholic conferences, Diane took note of people’s reactions after she introduced herself. “People would say, ‘Oh you’re from Phoenix? I’m so sorry,’” she recalled. “Or the entire room would hush.”

Diane worked at St. Timothy Catholic Church in Mesa, Ariz., when then-Msgr. Dale Fushek was the pastor. St. Tim’s, where LifeTeen was founded, has been my home parish since I was a child. Msgr. Dale was placed on administrative leave in 2004. His leadership of the parish ended abruptly after allegations of sexual misconduct surfaced.

In 2010, he agreed to a plea settlement, was fined $250 and served 364 days of probation. He pled guilty to one count of misdemeanor assault, but did not have to register as a sex offender. Earlier that year, Monsignor Dale had been laicized in connection to the abuse allegations and for founding a schismatic faith community.

Long-time parishioners will tell you all about what it was like before Monsignor Dale left. If you arrived at Mass on time, forget about getting a seat. You needed to show up at least 20 minutes early. Weekend Mass-goers would fill the parking lot as well as the one at the high school across the street.

Christmas and Easter? The parish would have simultaneous indoor and outdoor Masses, as well as a third at a nearby school. It was a spectacle, and Msgr. Dale was our rockstar. The parish founded Paz de Cristo, an outreach group to the homeless and working poor in the city, as well as a parochial school. There was a different event at the church every night, and parish leaders had to figure out how to coordinate a deluge of volunteers.

“Sometimes we don’t know what to believe and not believe,” Julie Smith, who used to be a music minister at St. Tim’s, told me. “We weren’t really tuned into all the drama and gossip…. There were a lot of things that weren’t healthy.”

The unanswered questions left an element of distrust, she said. Julie described the scandal as an explosion that tore the community apart. Community members who had known each other for years stopped talking. They disagreed about Msgr. Dale’s guilt, and many were angry that he was removed from the parish. He was beloved then and still is by many.

“We just keep carrying the wounds and unhealed parts of our lives. And we keep going and time passes,” she said. “We don’t always realize that the wounds are still there.”

Lauren Taveras is Catholic psychologist and the owner and founder of Coral Valley Psychological Services in Phoenix. She’s also my sister and a St. Tim’s parishioner. When I talked to her about this story, she noted the cognitive dissonance that arose because of the scandal: Church leaders that were meant to symbolize Jesus were guilty of heinous crimes against children.

The two main reactions from Catholics, she said, seemed either to question the trustworthiness of church leaders or to ignore or minimize what happened. The reactions can be understood in terms of fight or flight. But going to either extreme avoids grappling with the gray, where healing actually takes place, she said.

Further, Lauren believes the lack of trust may have become an unconscious disavowal of what the Catholic Church teaches as a whole. What do Catholics, who are often raised to follow the rules, do in light of the scandal?

One thing the church did was implement safe environment training. It is meant to, among other things, educate the community about common predatory behaviors. The idea is that greater awareness will help prevent abuse. Lauren shared that, at her daughters’ Catechesis of the Good Shepherd, parents who do not want their kids to go to safe environment training are instructed to simply keep their kids home the day of the training. But the catechesis program did not give parents tips on what to tell their children about sexual abuse.

Dioceses in the United States have also organized a number of healing Masses. While certainly well intended, Lauren said these Masses can be retraumatizing for survivors. Small groups facilitated by licensed mental health professionals may be more effective, she said.

A Step Backward

In 2005, St. Tim’s parishioners welcomed the Rev. Jack Spaulding as the next pastor. He gained notoriety in the diocese for being part of a group that claimed to have received visions and locutions of Mary and Jesus in 1988. At our parish, Father Jack made a number of changes, like commissioning a mural of saints behind the altar and requiring the use of a Catholic translation rather than the New International Version that was being used for Bible studies. Before Masses, the church would be buzzing with conversations. But Father Jack insisted on a quiet sanctuary. Predictably, parishioners celebrated some of these changes and questioned others.

Then in 2011, allegations of sexual abuse involving Father Jack surfaced. He died of pancreatic cancer in 2020, the same year a Maricopa Grand Jury charged him with six counts of sexual abuse with a minor and one count of molestation of a child.

“People at St. Tim’s were still hurting, and then with Father Jack, it just kept compounding,” Julie said. “We didn’t know the truth of a lot of things, but we just saw all the rubble and the destruction.”

Nan Hillebrand had known Father Jack for decades. Her husband, Paul, worked as a music minister for Father Jack for 20 years at different parishes. Nan works as a counselor at a diocesan Catholic high school. (And she’s friends with my mother.)

Some of the reaction to the abuse crisis felt like a step backward, Nan said. The church became more patriarchal, more top down. “It was like an overreaction, you know, ‘We’re going to try even harder to be holy.’ And yeah, we’re called to be holy. But what does that mean [in this context]?” It almost seems like some priests have a fear of being seen as human, Nan said.

“I see a lot of these young priests taking on a role, again, thinking that they have to be something for us that we don’t need from them,” Nan said. She recalled a “really sweet priest” telling those gathered for daily Mass that he would “get the wisdom and then reveal it to us,” Nan said. “So earnestly, but the idea was that all the wisdom that we got was going to come from him. And I thought, ‘Oh buddy, that’s not the way.’ But you know he learned that from somewhere.

“Priests mess up. They’re not perfect,” she said. “And I feel so badly for these young guys, and I want to say to them: ‘We’re not expecting you to be perfect. Please don’t think you’re perfect.’”

Healing to hand on the faith

Over the last two decades, the Catholic Church in the United States has witnessed an explosion of disaffiliated adults. Fewer and fewer Americans identify as Christians, and the sexual abuse scandal is often cited as a contributing factor.

Nan told me that a lot of Catholic high school students simply aren’t interested in the church. She suggested parents talk to their kids, even if they feel they don’t have many answers. “Just saying something simple is enough so that kids know, ‘If you have questions, I may not have answers but we can talk about it,’” she said. “I’m not afraid to talk about it. And I’m not afraid to say this is hard for me, too. Life is really messy.’”

Over time, Diane began organizing a group of mothers from different parishes who came together to support each other. It included women whose children struggled with addiction, with unprocessed grief and some who had children that died at a young age. While these children may not have been victims of abuse directly, she said, they still suffered through it. As Diane described it, “the trust [in the church] broke for these kids.”

“We were a community of women in need of healing. And so we just started gathering once a month, and we would have some kind of artistic expression and a beautiful meal,” Diane said. “And we would all nurture each other in our creative work. If you don’t take care of yourself as a mother, you’re not going to be able to care for the spiritual, emotional needs of your children.”

Mothers, Diane told me, should play a critical role in the church going forward. They should have a seat at the table where decisions are made in the church—especially in light of the sexual abuse crisis. The bishops, she said, haven’t done nearly enough.

“How do you heal? Well, you have to heal the bishops. Because they’re the shepherds,” Diane said. “And how do you heal them? Through their baptismal call, which is to repent. Only in that repentance are they on that common ground as Christian believers. Only then can trust between the sheep and shepherd be reestablished.”

The abuse crisis has too often been framed as a case of “a few bad apples.” It’s about the individual priest rather than the communal church. In a way, Diane said, it mirrors the 2010 change in the Creed’s translation from “We believe” to “I believe.”

“It’s one word, but I think it reflects a shift in mentality. ‘I believe,’ what does that say?” she asked. “Those individuals committed these crimes, not ‘we’? So we cut off these individuals, and we’re fine? We have not worked on how we heal the ‘we.’ That’s a big deal.”

Diane compared it to sick branches being cut off a vine. If the soil isn’t nourished, the vine will still be unhealthy. “What’s in the soil is what matters,” she said. “If we don’t look at the ‘we,’ then we can’t give love and healing as a community. So we have to heal the community.”

J.D. Long-García is a senior editor at America.