Bishop Accountability

Bishop Thomas J. O'Brien of Phoenix: From Agreement to Resignation
June 2-18, 2003

Bishop Avoids Charges
Phoenix Prelate Gives Up Power In Sex Abuse Cases

By Alan Cooperman
Washington Post
June 3, 2003; Page A01

In return for avoiding indictment on a felony charge of obstructing justice, the Roman Catholic bishop of Phoenix admitted that he concealed sexual abuse of children by priests and agreed to remove himself from all decisions on such cases in the future, prosecutors said yesterday.

The prosecutors described the agreement as the most serious legal admission of personal wrongdoing by a Catholic prelate since the sexual abuse scandal erupted in the United States. Catholic legal scholars said it represented an unprecedented degree of intervention by civil authorities into the church's management and raised thorny constitutional issues.

Winding up a year-long grand jury investigation, Maricopa County Attorney Richard M. Romley also announced the indictment of six former Phoenix priests on sexual abuse charges. One of them has died since the indictment, and two have been arrested in the past month.

"I acknowledge that I allowed Roman Catholic priests under my supervision to work with minors after becoming aware of allegations of sexual misconduct," Bishop Thomas J. O'Brien said in a three-sentence statement, which he signed May 3 and prosecutors made public yesterday.

"I further acknowledge that priests who had allegations of sexual misconduct made against them were transferred to ministries without full disclosure to their supervisor or to the community in which they were assigned," O'Brien said. "I apologize and express regret for any misconduct, hardship, or harm caused to the victims of sexual misconduct by Roman Catholic priests assigned to the Diocese."

Under a separate, five-page legal agreement, the bishop promised to revamp the management of the diocese of 430,000 Catholics, which he has headed since 1981.

In particular, O'Brien, 67, promised to delegate his authority in sexual abuse cases to two new administrators: a "moderator of the curia" -- roughly equivalent to a chief of staff -- and a "youth protection advocate." According to the agreement, they are responsible for reporting allegations to the police and enforcing the diocese's sexual misconduct policy.

Romley said that if O'Brien, or his successors as bishop, intervene in the handling of priests accused of sexually abusing minors or the priests' alleged victims, the prosecutor's office has the right to reopen the case and bring criminal charges.

"I've got the hammer over his head forever. He signed on behalf of the church," Romley said in a telephone interview.

Some Catholic lawyers, however, questioned whether O'Brien had the right to sign away the powers of the bishop's office, and whether such an arrangement would be constitutional.

"A bishop of the Roman Catholic Church does not have the power to permanently redefine the powers of a bishop. He can agree himself not to do something, but he can't bind his successors to do something that is contrary to Roman Catholic canon law," said Patrick J. Schiltz, dean of the law school at the University of St. Thomas in Minneapolis.

"A specific plea agreement would not necessarily raise a constitutional problem. But an agreement that carries beyond Bishop O'Brien, that applies generally to the office of bishop in that diocese . . . is starting to edge toward the constitutional line if not going beyond it," said Douglas W. Kmiec, dean of the Catholic University law school in Washington.

Romley said he was confident that the agreement would pass constitutional muster.

"These kinds of arguments were made daily" in months of arduous negotiations with Catholic officials in Arizona, the prosecutor said. "I assure you that there were so many lawyers on the church's side, if they thought they had an opportunity to win, they would have taken it."

Victims' groups expressed disappointment that the Arizona prosecutor opted not to indict O'Brien, who would have been the first bishop in the United States charged with a felony related to sexual abuse by priests.

"So many prosecutors around the country have said, 'We would do it if we could. We just lack the legal tools.' Here's a guy who said he could have done it, but he didn't," said David Clohessy, executive director of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests. "It's disappointing, because it's the one approach that has yet to be tried and many survivors and lay people think would be a truly effective deterrent."

Romley has said publicly that the grand jury investigation developed enough evidence to indict O'Brien for obstruction of justice. According to a source close to the probe, O'Brien allegedly instructed a priest in 1985 to persuade a Catholic family not to report an incident of sexual molestation to the police, and when the priest refused to carry out that order, the bishop allegedly forced him out of the church.

Romley said yesterday that he chose to negotiate an agreement, rather than to proceed with a prosecution, because it was the "only way to ensure real change" in the diocese.

"My primary objective during this entire investigation was to have the abuse stopped, and to make sure there were adequate controls in place that it would not happen again," he said.

O'Brien declined through a spokeswoman yesterday to answer questions about the allegations or the agreement. His office issued a brief statement saying, "This has been a very difficult time for our entire Diocese, for me, for our priests and especially for the victims of sexual misconduct."

More than a dozen prosecutors across the country have been conducting similar grand jury investigations. Several have resulted in indictments against priests, and a few have produced scathing reports. The closest outcome to Arizona's was in New Hampshire, where the bishop of Manchester signed an agreement in December acknowledging that prosecutors had sufficient evidence to charge the diocese with child endangerment. But that is a misdemeanor in New Hampshire, and it applied to the diocese as a whole, not to Bishop John B. McCormack personally.

Five U.S. bishops have resigned over sexual abuse charges, including Cardinal Bernard F. Law of Boston, who acknowledged making serious errors and apologized. But none of those bishops have faced criminal charges.

Text of the agreement between Maricopa County Attorney Rick Romley, Bishop Thomas O'Brien and the Roman Catholic Diocese of Phoenix

Arizona Republic
June 2, 2003

Here is the text of the agreement between Maricopa County Attorney Rick Romley, Bishop Thomas O'Brien and the Roman Catholic Diocese of Phoenix.



This Agreement is entered into this 3rd day of May, 2003, by and between the State of Arizona, ex. rel. Richard M. Romley, Maricopa County Attorney; Thomas J. O'Brien, Bishop of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Phoenix and the Roman Catholic Diocese of Phoenix, a corporation sole ("the Diocese").


For purposes of this agreement, the following definitions apply:

"Priest" means any Diocesan priest, or any priest who is a member of a separate order.

"Diocesan Personnel" means the Bishop, any priest, nun, seminarian or deacon, and all employees and volunteers who perform any type of service or work for the Diocese, whether clergy or layperson.


A Maricopa County Grand Jury is investigating and considering information relating to criminal sexual misconduct by diocesan personnel including, but not limited to, the criminal conduct of individual priests. The grand jury has also been investigating whether Thomas J. O'Brien or the Diocese failed to report to law enforcement authorities criminal sexual misconduct by priests and other Diocesan personnel, and whether Thomas J. O'Brien or the Diocese placed or transferred priests or other Diocesan personnel in or to a position to commit additional criminal conduct after becoming aware of prior criminal conduct.

Since 1961, Thomas J. O'Brien has been an ordained priest of the Roman Catholic Church. In 1969, Thomas J. O'Brien was appointed Chancellor of the Diocese. In 1978, ThomasJ. O'Brien was appointed Vicar General of the Diocese. In 1981, Thomas J. O'Brien was appointed Bishop of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Phoenix. In that capacity, he assumed the responsibility of administering, supervising and overseeing the operation of the Diocese.

During the course of the grand jury's investigation, to this date, no credible evidence has been received that would establish that Thomas J. O'Brien personally engaged in criminal sexual misconduct. However, the investigation developed evidence that Thomas J. O'Brien failed to protect the victims of criminal sexual misconduct of others associated with the Roman Catholic Diocese of Phoenix.

This Agreement is executed upon the conclusion that the public interest would be best served by settling the matter without criminal prosecution of Thomas J. O'Brien or the Diocese. The following terms, representations, and conditions will insure that the Diocese complies with all applicable laws relating to criminal sexual misconduct by its agents, representatives, or employees. The following terms, representations, and conditions will contribute to the well-being of the community at large by offering counseling to victims of criminal sexual misconduct, reimbursing the State of Arizona for certain costs expended during the course of this investigation, and assuring compliance by the Diocese with all applicable laws relating to sexual misconduct.

THEREFORE, it is hereby represented and agreed that:

Bishop Thomas J. O'Brien has appointed a Moderator of the Curia. The Moderator of the Curia is a canonical position equivalent to "chief of staff". Certain administrative duties have been delegated by Thomas J. O'Brien to the Moderator of the Curia, which shall include the responsibility for dealing with issues that arise relating to the revision, enforcement and application of the sexual misconduct policy.

The Diocese has created and appointed the position of Youth Protection Advocate. That person shall be responsible for the implementation and enforcement of the policy on sexual misconduct by Diocesan personnel. Under the Diocesan policy, all Diocesan personnel, including the Youth Protection Advocate, are required to comply 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 child 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 Thomas J. O'Brien, or any other Diocesan personnel.

With input from the Maricopa County Attorney's Office, a special counsel will be employed within sixty (60) days of the signing of this Agreement. This attorney shall be counsel for the Youth Protection Advocate. This special counsel's advice will not be subject to approval by anyone within the Diocese including, but not limited to, Thomas J. O'Brien or any other priest.

The Diocese's Policy on Sexual Misconduct is to be reviewed and modified. The Maricopa County Attorney's Office and the public shall be offered the opportunity to provide input prior to any adoption and/or revision of such policy.

The Diocese, in conjunction with the Maricopa County Attorney's Office, shall implement a training program to educate Diocesan personnel on sexual misconduct issues, including the Mandatory Reporting Law (A.R.S. 13-3620), and Maricopa County's Multidisciplinary Protocol for the Investigation of Child Abuse. The Maricopa County Children's Justice Project Team will be invited to conduct regular and ongoing training of all Diocesan personnel, including the training of Diocesan school personnel.

Thomas J. O'Brien shall, in a written public statement which is incorporated at Tab A, acknowledge that he allowed Roman Catholic priests under his supervision to have contact with minors after becoming aware of allegations of criminal sexual misconduct. He shall further acknowledge transferring offending priests to situations where children could be further victimized. In addition, Thomas J. O'Brien shall apologize and express contrition for any misconduct, hardship or harm caused to the victims of criminal sexual misconduct by Roman Catholic priests assigned to the Roman Catholic Diocese of Phoenix.

The Diocese will make a contribution to the Maricopa County Attorney's Victim Compensation Fund (Victim Assistance Fund, A.R.S. 41-2408) in the sum of Three Hundred Thousand Dollars ($300,000.00) within fourteen (14) days of the execution of this Agreement. These funds shall be used to compensate child victims of criminal sexual misconduct.

The Diocese will allocate a total of Three Hundred Thousand Dollars ($300,000.00) of funds received by the Diocese for counseling of those victimized by child sexual abuse. The allocation shall be made at a rate of One Hundred Thousand Dollars ($100,000.00) per year from the signing of this Agreement. It may be accelerated at the discretion of the Diocese.

Within 180 days of the signing of this Agreement, the Diocese shall create a Victim Assistance Panel. It will be a three-person panel composed of established and respected mental health professionals. This panel will consider requests from persons who indicate that they are victims of sexual misconduct by Diocesan personnel for counseling assistance for the victim and the victim's immediate family. This process will be available to all victims of sexual misconduct, including those persons whose legal claim for sexual misconduct are foreclosed by the statute of limitations, and those persons who have entered into binding settlement agreements, but now find that those settlement agreements were inadequate to address unforeseen impacts of their victimization. The panel will have the authority to approve requests for counseling. Approved requests for counseling would result in payment of counseling fees and costs to qualified treatment providers of up to Fifty Thousand Dollars ($50,000.00) per any one victim and that victim's family, over the victim's lifetime.

The Diocese and the Maricopa County Attorney's Office will host a summit meeting on sexual abuse within twelve (12) months following the execution of this Agreement. The cost of the summit will be borne by the Diocese. Both the County Attorney and the Diocese may invite anyone to attend the summit. The purpose of the summit is to provide a forum for exchange of information on sexual abuse and the responsibility of public and private employers and others to identify and appropriately deal with these issues.

One Hundred Thousand Dollars ($100,000.00) shall be paid by the Diocese to the Maricopa County Attorney's Office as reimbursement for investigative expenses. The sum shall be paid within fourteen (14) days of execution of this Agreement.

The State of Arizona agrees not to initiate criminal charges against Thomas J. O'Brien or the Diocese arising out of information relating to the subject matter of this investigation for acts occurring on or before the date of the execution of this Agreement with the following exception: If information is forthcoming of personal, direct involvement of Thomas J. O'Brien in any act of criminal sexual misconduct, then charges shall not be precluded. This Agreement shall not preclude the Maricopa County Attorney's Office from prosecuting any other individual for criminal misconduct.

To protect the integrity of on-going investigations and not impede the conclusion of those investigations, this Agreement and its terms shall be kept confidential to be disclosed at the discretion of the Maricopa County Attorney's Office. Upon a decision of the Maricopa County Attorney's Office to disclose this Agreement and its terms, it is acknowledged that this Agreement will be a public document and the parties to the Agreement are free to hold separate and distinct public announcements and to supply supplemental information and to respond to questions posed by the media or members of the public except as prohibited by law.

In the event of any material breach of this Agreement, by Thomas J. O'Brien or the Diocese, as first determined by the Maricopa County Superior Court after notice and a hearing, this Agreement shall be rendered null and void and the State of Arizona shall have the right to pursue any and all remedies provided by law including, but not limited to, initiation of criminal proceedings. If Thomas J. O'Brien or the Diocese breaches this Agreement and the State files criminal charges, Thomas J. O'Brien and the Diocese agree that any applicable period of limitation is tolled from the effective date of this Agreement until the date on which the Agreement is rendered null and void.


Thomas J. O'Brien
Bishop of the Diocese of Phoenix

Jordan Green
Lee Stein
Attorneys for Bishop Thomas J. O'Brien


Thomas J. O'Brien
Bishop of the Diocese of Phoenix

James Belanger
Frederick Petti
Attorneys for the Diocese of Phoenix

Richard M. Romley
Maricopa County Attorney

Text from O'Brien's news conference

Arizona Republic
June 2, 2003

Below is the text of a statement the bishop read Monday afternoon in response to the day's developments:

Living through this past year has been painful and very stressful. At times it's been saddening, frustrating and bewildering. Needless to say I'm relieved this difficult chapter is behind us.

However, let me clarify a few things.

It is possible to second guess decisions that have been made ... yes. Hindsight is 20/20. Have I committed a crime ... NO.

Many of the allegations discussed by Mr. Romley date back to the seventies before I was Bishop. We did our best then and we are doing our best now to insure that the children in our schools and churches are safe.

It was never my intention to obstruct or interfere in any way. I certainly never intentionally placed a child in harms way. To suggest a cover up is just plain false. I did not oversee decades of wrongdoing.

The problem of sexual abuse is complex and has plagued every aspect of our society for decades. As you know, this is not a problem unique to the Catholic Church. Experts, including law enforcement, have changed their views about how to deal with the problem. The Diocese implemented a sexual misconduct policy in 1991, and with the help of community leaders, revised it in 1995. This problem won't be fixed overnight by edicts of the County Attorney or anyone else.

We agree with the County Attorney that this agreement is about the children, our children, and the future. And so, with that in mind, the Phoenix Diocese developed a comprehensive plan at its own initiative to address the problems associated with sexual abuse and maintaining a safe environment.

Our plan included the Youth Protection Advocate, the Moderator of the Curia, the special counsel, a Vicitms' Assistance Panel and an improved training program. Creating a safer environment was my highest priority.

We began sharing the details of the plan with the County Attorney's office and Mr. Romley personally in January. He incorporated our ideas into the agreement which was released today. The Phoenix Diocese would have implemented these new initiatives regardless of whether we reached an agreement with the County Attorney or not. Unfortunately, we were prohibited from discussing the details of our plan until the agreement was made public.

One more matter I need to address. There has been no speculation about my service as Bishop of the Diocese of Phoenix. Although we explored several different resolutions to this matter, we made it clear to Mr. Romley and his office that my resignation was not an option. I serve at the pleasure of the Pope, and not the County Attorney.

Let me assure everyone, everyone that we are doing everything possible to maintain a safe environment in our parishes and in our schools. That will continue to be a priority in the years ahead. I ask your support and prayers as we continue to work of the gospel.

In conclusion, I echo the words of Saint Paul to Timothy: "It is my wish then that in every place, people shall offer prayers with blameless hands held aloft, and be free of anger and dissension."

This has been a very difficult day for all of us. I look forward to visiting with the members of the media in more detail tomorrow. God bless you. And thank you for coming today and for listening.

Abuse victims feel O'Brien was 'let off hook criminally'

By Connie Cone Sexton
Arizona Republic
June 3, 2003 12:00 AM

Bishop Thomas J. O'Brien should have been indicted and not allowed immunity for admitting he covered up sexual abuse cases in the Phoenix Diocese, victims of the abuse and their families said Monday.

"He truly should be held accountable and sent to jail for what he's done," said Glendale resident Shari Roy, who gave birth to a child in 1978 after she said she was raped by former Scottsdale priest Patrick Colleary.

"O'Brien is as evil as the predators" for not bringing to public light the actions of his priests, she said.

Kathleen Lecheler, another of Colleary's accusers, agreed: "I'm real disappointed he's being let off the hook criminally. The buck stops there. He needs to pay the price."

Lecheler, who claimed that Colleary had fondled her as a child while serving at SS. Simon and Jude Cathedral, winces when she recalls that O'Brien previously had said his conscience was clear. She said she had gone to O'Brien for help years ago about Colleary but was rebuffed. "I felt very patronized and very frustrated. I had even sent in a letter with all the details."

Paul Pfaffenberger, who founded the local chapter of SNAP (Survivors Network for those Abused by Priests), said the agreement signed by O'Brien leaves "unfinished business. His being met with criminal consequences would have been more satisfying to the victims."

Still, Pfaffenberger said he understood why Maricopa County Attorney Rick Romley made the deal he did and he's impressed with his tenacity at landing the agreement.

Family members of those who have been abused said O'Brien's admission helps bring closure but it's not enough.

Sue Watson, whose son Sean was molested by the then-Father George Bredemann at St. Catherine of Sienna Church in Phoenix, wanted O'Brien to be held fully accountable. Bredemann, who has been defrocked, was given 45 years in prison in 1989 for having had sex with young boys.

"It's just such a slap in these kids' faces," she said. "That there are no charges against the bishop is just unbelievable to me when you think about the crimes that have been committed in this Valley. My son suffered. He became a drug addict, but he's clean now."

Sean, now 31 and working as a disc jockey in Kansas, said it is "ridiculous" that O'Brien is basically staying put on the job. "It does bring some closure to this in that he admitted what he knew, but I don't agree with the doctrine.

Sean said he would like to sit down with O'Brien and get an answer for why he didn't come forward years ago. "It would be a pretty deep conversation. There'd be some anger, but I'd love to ask him why."

Phoenix resident Rene Sosa, who claims he was victimized by now-deceased priest Henry Perez, said O'Brien needs to make a public apology.

Sosa, 38, who said he was abused from the ages of 12 to 15 by Perez at St. Matthew Catholic Church in Phoenix, said Perez was "like a demon who wouldn't go away. But today, I heard that he had died. I can have closure now. But I think O'Brien should really represent the people he represents in the church. He owes us an explanation."

Lecheler, 46 and living in Austin, is glad the agreement O'Brien signed provides funds for victims counseling.

But she said there isn't enough money to heal her feelings of loss with the Catholic Church. While her faith in God remains steadfast, she feels abandoned by her religion.

"It was my cornerstone, and that's the biggest thing now. I just haven't gotten that back. It's almost like a big sham. Where do I have to go to have my faith?"

Contact information

Contact information for victims of possible sexual abuse by priests:
Maricopa County Attorney's Office: (602) 506-4200.
SNAP: Survivors Network for those Abused by Priests: (480) 600-7811.

Romley, O'Brien clash over substance of deal
Bishop denies he's admitting cover-up

Joseph A. Reaves
Arizona Republic
June 3, 2003

An immunity agreement intended to bring an end to the lingering sex abuse scandal in the Phoenix Diocese turned instead into another dramatic showdown Monday between Bishop Thomas J. O'Brien and County Attorney Rick Romley.

The bishop and prosecutor took sharply differing stands about the meaning of the agreement, which is believed to be the first negotiated by a senior Catholic Church leader to avoid possible criminal indictment in connection with covering up sexual abuse.

O'Brien insisted that a key 82-word statement he signed in return for immunity from prosecution fell far short of an admission that he covered up sex crimes by priests in the Phoenix Diocese and endangered children.

"I certainly never intentionally placed a child in harm's way," O'Brien said at a news conference Monday afternoon.

"To suggest a cover-up is just plain false. I did not oversee decades of wrongdoing."

Romley reacted angrily to the bishop's remarks.

"Is he revising history?" Romley said.

"Did the bishop fail to understand the confession he was signing? Did he fail to understand that he needed immunity? If he continues to lie about everything, I'll have to consider whether or not that's a breach of our agreement."

The sparring came at the end of a day that began with Romley announcing the immunity agreement, a statement of responsibility by the bishop and the indictment of six priests who served in the Phoenix Diocese.

Those six indictments were the result of a yearlong investigation by several grand juries that examined more than 200,000 documents and the personnel records of 70 priests, former priests and church employees accused of sexual misconduct during the past three decades.

Romley said at his morning news conference that the criminal indictments and a five-page legal agreement the bishop signed had effectively brought an end to his investigation.

That legal document gives O'Brien immunity if he adheres to 14 conditions, some of which eliminated the bishop's authority to deal with sexual abuse cases in the diocese.

Other points in the agreement imposed significant financial settlements on the diocese and required the bishop to revamp the church hierarchy by bringing in three new officials.

A moderator of the Curia, the equivalent of a chief of staff, will be named to assist in the day-to-day running of the diocese.

An independent advocate and a new attorney will be hired to deal specifically with sex abuse allegations.

Church attorneys have delivered a $400,000 check to cover those costs.

In addition, the diocese agreed to donate another $100,000 a year for three years to provide counseling for victims of child sexual abuse and to guarantee up to $50,000 apiece for any victims or their family members who request treatment.

Those concessions were coupled with a statement from O'Brien in which the bishop acknowledged he knowingly allowed priests under his supervision "to work with minors after becoming aware of allegations of sexual misconduct."

The bishop further acknowledged in the statement "that priests who had allegations of sexual misconduct made against them were transferred to ministries without full disclosure to their supervisor or to the community in which they were assigned."

Romley said those admissions and other evidence he gathered during his investigation convinced him that he had the evidence to bring a felony criminal indictment against O'Brien for obstruction of justice.

The county attorney said he decided against seeking an indictment only after getting what he considered to be a candid confession from O'Brien and a promise that the bishop would surrender all power to deal with sex abuse allegations in the diocese.

"I could have brought charges," Romley said at his news conference. "But I felt my primary goal was to protect the children. I chose the future rather than dwell on the tragedies of the past."

Early Monday, before Romley released the text of the agreement, three of his top aides met with 16 victims of sexual abuse and their families to let them know about the immunity deal and what it involved.

Several participants said that when the terms of the deal were announced, the victims and their families broke into applause.'

"It was amazing," said Paul Pfaffenberger, head of the local chapter of SNAP, the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests. "Romley and his staff did a phenomenal job."

Not everyone agreed. The county attorney was harshly criticized by many who felt he was applying a double standard if, as he claimed, he had enough evidence to indict O'Brien.

"Why isn't the bishop in jail?" said Father Thomas Doyle, a priest for 33 years and an internationally recognized expert on sex abuse in the church.

"If this happened to anybody else, the perks and privileges of his office would not have kicked in. To see one of these guys convicted would show them they are no longer above the law. That's going to make a big difference."

Michael Manning, who represented O'Brien and the diocese for several months last year, disagreed. He thought the agreement Romley negotiated, and the statement the county attorney got from the bishop, were significant.

"I think he did a good job, and I think he acted very responsibly in a very difficult investigation," Manning said.

Father Thomas Reese, editor of America, the Catholic weekly magazine, and an expert on church affairs, hailed the agreement Romley announced.

"What the county attorney has done with this agreement is to make sure that the diocese cleans up its act, which would not necessarily have been brought about simply by an indictment," Reese said. "This is an unprecedented kind of an agreement because the bishop agrees to allow specific people in the diocese to make decisions in areas where he normally would have the final say."

Romley was adamant that the immunity agreement, and the concessions he negotiated with the diocese, would do more to help the church and the community move past the sex abuse scandal than indicting the bishop:

"Somewhere the church lost its moral compass. This is so wrong. I don't understand how this could happen. They need to get their moral compass realigned and get back to doing the good they have done in the past."O'Brien met with priests from the diocese at a retreat Monday afternoon, shortly after Romley's news conference announcing the agreement.

Several priests attending the retreat expressed shock at the bishop's statement when they first heard the news, but then dramatically changed their minds after hearing what O'Brien had to say.

"The press is taking Romley as gospel," said Father Pat Robinson of Blessed Sacrament in Scottsdale. "We heard the other side of the story and when you compare the sides of the story, they don't match."

Robinson said he and his fellow priests asked questions and O'Brien was forthright with them.

"Romley is grandstanding and hasn't proven anything," Robinson said. "I believe (the bishop) long before I believe a politician."

The Diocese of Phoenix

Founded: 1969, created from the dioceses of Tucson and Gallup, N.M.
Leadership: Thomas J. O'Brien is its third bishop, succeeding James A. Rausch, who died in 1981. The diocese's first bishop, Edward A. McCarthy, was reassigned to Miami.
Size: An estimated 560,000 Catholics reside in metropolitan Phoenix. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints ranks second with 160,000 members, followed by the Southern Baptist Convention with 84,000.
Operations: A combined 89 parishes, 27 missions and 33 schools in Maricopa, Mohave, Yavapai and Coconino counties. Does not include the Navajo Reservation or the Gila River Reservation.

O'Brien won't surrender power

Joseph A. Reaves
Arizona Republic
June 4, 2003

Bishop Thomas O'Brien took significant steps Tuesday to implement terms of a deal he signed to avoid criminal prosecution. But he made it clear he would reject any attempts to diminish his authority.

"The bishop is still the bishop," O'Brien said during a 29-minute interview at the new diocesan headquarters in downtown Phoenix.

"(As bishop) you can't step down. You cannot abdicate."

O'Brien's forceful stand came in response to questions about his immunity agreement made public on Monday.

Maricopa County Attorney Rick Romley said the five-page document compelled O'Brien to surrender authority to handle any allegations of sexual misconduct.

Romley said the diocese will hire a new independent youth protection advocate to coordinate sexual abuse policies with the help of a new independent attorney. The two will report to a moderator of the Curia, a newly established position for the person who will essentially be O'Brien's chief of staff.

O'Brien invited reporters to his office to introduce two of the three new officials: Jennifer O'Connor, youth protection advocate, and Monsignor Richard Moyer, moderator of the Curia.

While discussing their roles, O'Brien rejected any notion he was yielding the ultimate authority to deal with sex abuse allegations.

"I can't abdicate my responsibility," he said. "I'm not relinquishing my authority. But at the same time I am delegating. That perhaps is a thin line that many people may not understand. But I understand it, and the people who I delegate to understand it."

The bishop's words clearly were carefully chosen, and three of his top legal advisers stood nearby, carefully listening to ensure that the words came out just right.

O'Brien made a point of distinguishing between "delegating" responsibility and "relinquishing" authority.

That distinction was in line with a key provision of the immunity agreement, which read: "Certain administrative duties have been delegated by Thomas J. O'Brien to the moderator of the Curia."

Those duties include responsibility for enforcing the church's sexual misconduct policy.

On Monday, Romley had said the 14-point agreement effectively removed O'Brien from having anything to do with sexual abuse allegations in the diocese.

"I have attempted to take the authority over sexual abuse allegations away from Thomas O'Brien," Romley said. "He is out of the picture."

Romley vowed to go to court to revoke the immunity agreement if O'Brien ever again became involved in handling sexual misconduct cases.

But the bishop insisted Tuesday that no civil authority could strip him of ultimate responsibility for church policies, including the monitoring of sexual misconduct accusations.

"I have to know what is going on," O'Brien said. "If a priest abuses a child, I have to know that. You wouldn't want me not to know about that, would you? I would have to know because I would have to take them out of the ministry."

O'Brien said he will rely on his new aides to determine the credibility of sexual abuse allegations and will act on their recommendations. That has been his policy for more than a decade, he said, and it will not change.

"That's been the case for the last 14 years," he said. "Other people made judgments about the credibility of allegations. I have not done that. But when they come to me and say, 'Bishop, there's evidence that this man has abused a child,' then I take action."

O'Brien touched his chest several times during the interview to emphasize the depth of his feelings.

"I apologize to anyone I might have harmed by my actions or by the actions of any diocesan personnel," he said. "I regret that very deeply."

O'Brien seemed to invoke careful semantics in discussing the key part of his immunity agreement.

In an 82-word statement, he acknowledged allowing priests accused of sexual misconduct to work with minors and admitted transferring priests facing sexual allegations without notifying their superiors or the community.

"I did not intentionally assign a priest to a parish where I knew, believed or thought he would offend," O'Brien said Tuesday. "That's in my heart. That's what I believe to be true."

The bishop was asked whether he used the word "knowingly" to set that comment apart from the statement he signed in the immunity agreement.

"I don't know, but I know what is in my heart," he said. "I don't know that I knowingly developed a scheme, had a cover-up or tried to transfer a priest when I knew this guy was going to offend again. I believe in my heart that he would not."

Romley was unavailable for comment Tuesday night but reacted angrily earlier when he heard similar remarks from O'Brien maintaining his innocence.

"I am reviewing all of the comments from Bishop O'Brien," Romley said.

"I am very disappointed that he is failing to acknowledge the tragedies of the past. I will be much more willing to bring forward criminal charges in the future."

Valley stunned by arrest of O'Brien in fatal hit-and-run

By Dennis Wagner, Judd Slivka and Joseph Reaves
Arizona Republic
June 17, 2003

Bishop Thomas J. O'Brien, beleaguered by a sexual misconduct scandal involving clergy, was arrested Monday in connection with a fatal hit-and-run accident in Phoenix.

Bishop Thomas J. O’Brien is taken into Maricopa County’s Madison Street Jail on Monday by Phoenix police, who arrested him in connection with a fatal hit-and-run crash Saturday night. Emmanuel Lozano/The Arizona Republic

The prelate's new calamity throws Arizona's Catholic leadership deeper into limbo and rocks a diocese that has endured months of scrutiny about priests accused of sexual misconduct with children.

Investigators say O'Brien was behind the wheel of a tan Buick Park Avenue that struck and killed Jim L. Reed, 43, at 8:35 p.m. Saturday on Glendale Avenue just west of 19th Avenue.

According to Maricopa County Superior Court records, O'Brien did not contact police about the accident after a fellow priest informed him Sunday night that detectives were looking for him and the vehicle. On Monday morning, the bishop made phone inquiries about replacing his damaged windshield before police confronted him.

When first questioned, O'Brien told officers he was driving the car Saturday and thought he hit a dog or cat or someone threw a rock at his car, according to court records.

The 67-year-old bishop was arrested about noon Monday on suspicion of leaving a fatal accident scene, a Class 4 felony, and taken to Maricopa County's Madison Street Jail. Before he could be booked, medical screeners determined that O'Brien suffered from dangerously high blood pressure. After treatment at St. Joseph's Hospital and Medical Center, he was returned to jail for a mug shot and fingerprinting.

At an initial appearance Monday evening, bail was set at $45,000. O'Brien posted bond and was released. Hewas ordered to turn in his passport and was banned from leaving the state pending a June 25 arraignment. A judge denied his request to attend the U.S. Conference of Bishops this week in St. Louis.

Dressed in a black cleric's shirt and black slacks, O'Brien was subdued at the hearing, responding to questions but making no statement. Earlier in the day, he declined to speak with reporters outside his north Phoenix home, which had been cordoned off by police.

Maricopa County Attorney Rick Romley, who is responsible for prosecuting O'Brien, also declined comment. Last month, Romley struck a deal allowing the Roman Catholic leader to avoid criminal indictment on charges of obstructing justice in connection with priest sex abuse cases. As part of that settlement, O'Brien admitted concealing sex abuse cases and agreed to major diocesan reforms.

News of the bishop's latest turmoil stunned Catholics and elicited sorrow and sympathy from even strident critics. Rep. Robert Meza, a Phoenix Democrat who was among a group of Hispanics who sought O'Brien's resignation over the handling of the sex abuse scandal, offered words of compassion on Monday.

"I'm saddened by the whole thing, but you are innocent until proven guilty," Meza said. "It's devastating. I think he's under a lot of pressure and the stress and pressure finally got to him. I hurt for him and I hope everything works out, and I'm sad for the person who was killed."

Vatican officials declined comment Monday, but Monsignor Richard Moyer, the diocese's chief of staff, said, "I sincerely regret reports I have received about Bishop O'Brien being involved in a fatal accident. The sympathy of all of us in the Diocese of Phoenix as well as our prayerful support goes out to the victim's family."

Reed, a carpenter and father of two, had taken a bus to visit relatives in the Glendale Avenue neighborhood. Family members from Phoenix to Tuba City said the accident wiped out plans for a joyful reunion on Father's Day. They are now making arrangements for his funeral this week in Flagstaff.

"We loved him a lot," said a sister, Janice Acothley of Tuba City. "We're just glad we spent all those precious moments together. . . . It wasn't his time to go. We will always remember him."

Police say Reed was jaywalking across Glendale Avenue when he was hit by the eastbound Buick then run over by a second vehicle. Reed was pronounced dead at John C. Lincoln Hospital-North Mountain.

Both drivers left without stopping.

However, a witness followed the 2003 Buick, obtained its Arizona plate number and returned to the scene, where he gave the information to police. The license number, 547 HBE, is registered to the Catholic Diocese of Phoenix. Police have been unable to locate the driver of the second vehicle.

Sgt. Lauri Williams, a police spokeswoman, said detectives traced the first car to O'Brien on Sunday but were unable to locate him or the Buick until Monday morning. Investigators interviewed O'Brien at his north Phoenix residence.

At one point he came outside with them to inspect the car before it was towed to an impound yard. The front end of O'Brien's car was damaged on the passenger side and the windshield was concaved and fractured. Reed is listed as 6 feet tall and 235 pounds.

Williams said O'Brien told detectives he is the only person who drives the Buick and that at the time of the accident he was returning from Buckeye after officiating at an evening confirmation and Mass there.

Alex Yanez, 78, of Buckeye, attended the hourlong mass in Buckeye and spoke with O'Brien after 10 young men were confirmed Saturday.

He said nothing seemed out of the ordinary.

"It just couldn't be possible," Yanez said after learning of the hit-and-run allegations.

The diocese issued a notice to priests advising them of the weekend events. The message included this note: "Please keep the man who was killed in your prayers, together with his family. Please keep the bishop in your prayers in this moment of anguish."

Diocesan attorney Greg Leisse, who met with O'Brien while police were at the bishop's home, said afterward: "He seems upset, but he seems well."

Police handled O'Brien gingerly Monday and transported him to jail without the customary handcuffs.

Authorities emphasized that, at this point, the bishop does not face a vehicular manslaughter charge. As police investigate further, two legal issues work to his benefit: Reed purportedly was crossing the street outside of a crosswalk; and, because O'Brien left the scene, authorities are unable to determine whether he was impaired by alcohol or drugs at the time of the accident.

But his alleged behavior afterward - failing to surrender and attempting to replace the windshield - could pose defense problems.

If convicted of leaving the scene but not found responsible for Reed's death, O'Brien faces a sentence ranging from probation to 3.75 years in prison. A conviction based on culpability for the accident could increase the sentence to as much as 8.75 years.

Reporters Brent Whiting, Yvonne Wingett, Shawn Day, Daniel González, Michael Clancy and Monica Alonzo-Dunsmoor contributed to this story.

Reach the reporter at or (602) 444-8874.

Text of statement from former Bishop Thomas O'Brien

Reprinted by the Arizona Republic
June 18, 2003

Text of a statement released by the Roman Catholic Diocese of Phoenix on behalf of Bishop Thomas O'Brien, who resigned Wednesday [6/18/03]:

"It is with a heavy heart and great sorrow that I submitted my resignation as Bishop of the Diocese of Phoenix. As you know, it was accepted by the Vatican.

"I have said many times in this past year that the Church isn't one person. It is the Catholic people, the priests, and yes, the Bishop.

"I have shepherded the Phoenix Diocese for more than 20 years and it has always been my desire that the focus be on the good works of the Church in the community and not myself.

"I have many to thank - most importantly the clergy, religious and lay people of the Catholic Diocese who have supported the Church and me through good times and bad.

"This past year has been very painful. It became apparent that as long as I remained Bishop the focus of the news media would be on me and not the Church and Her people.

"I have dedicated myself to serving God, the Church and the people of this diocese. I love and support the Catholic people, even those who may have felt disappointed in my leadership this past year.

"I want you all to know that my only desire was to always do what is best for the Catholic people and the community.

"My heart is aching, but I felt I needed to step aside for you, the Catholic people, to allow the diocese to heal from what has been a painful time in our history.

"You have my love, my support and my blessing.

"I would also like to say how much I respect Archbishop Michael J. Sheehan and I am grateful that he will help to shepherd the diocese through this transitional period.

"I am humbled and honored to have served as your Bishop.

"Thank you again, dear people, for all your love and concern, for your outpouring of prayers and support, and for your faithful service to God, the Catholic Church and me.

"Asking God's blessings upon you, I am, and shall always remain, yours faithfully in Christ, Bishop Thomas J. O'Brien."

Healer Bishops Are Sent to Ease Churches' Pain

By Laurie Goodstein
New York Times
June 22, 2003

St. Louis - Seventeen years ago, the Vatican dispatched a 53-year-old New York priest named Harry J. Flynn to take over as bishop in a Louisiana diocese. His assignment was to rescue the faith of the Roman Catholics there whose children had been sexually violated by the Rev. Gilbert Gauthe, in the first nationally notorious case of a pedophile priest.

[Photo Captions: Bishop Wilton D. Gregory, another troubleshooter, heads the bishops conference, which he addressed yesterday at its close (Getty Images). Archbishop Harry J. Flynn of the St. Paul-Minneapolis Archdiocese, shown above yesterday at the Roman Catholic bishops conference in St. Louis, is the original "fixer" bishop, one of a small group called on by the pope to rush into troubled American dioceses (Reuters). Archbishop Michael J. Sheehan of Santa Fe, N.M., right, is a member of the group (Associated Press).]

The bishop could not fix everything in Lafayette, La., but in eight years he helped repair the damage. Today, as Archbishop Flynn, he closed the spring meeting of the nation's bishops with a progress report on the "monumental effort" they have undertaken to adopt new policies to prevent sexual abuse.

"There is still a long road ahead of us," said Archbishop Flynn, who now heads the Archdiocese of St. Paul-Minneapolis. But he added: "Our commitment has not wavered. We have made a pledge to our people and to the people of this nation and especially to the vulnerable ones, and we will keep that pledge."

He announced that the bishops have formed a committee to consider guidelines on the housing, financial support and monitoring of abusive priests who were removed from working in the ministry but not from the priesthood, the situation for many of the offenders.

Archbishop Flynn was the original "fixer" bishop, but now he is part of a growing subset. After nearly 20 years of sporadic sexual abuse scandals culminating in last year's four-alarm crisis, there is now a small company of at least eight American bishops who have been called on by the pope to rush into troubled dioceses and help extinguish the flames.

Many are younger than 67 -- the average age of bishops appointed by Pope John Paul II these days. Some are dynamic and forceful; others have a humble touch. The work requires multiple skills: reaching out to victims and their families, comforting parishioners, disciplining bad priests and reassuring good ones, negotiating with prosecutors and lawyers, raising money to pay off settlements.

Two of the bishops have done double duty, each now on his second consecutive assignment to reconstruct dioceses left in a shambles. One is Archbishop Michael J. Sheehan, 64, who flew to Phoenix on Thursday after the resignation of Bishop Thomas J. O'Brien. Bishop O'Brien, who was charged with leaving the scene of a car accident that killed a pedestrian, recently signed an unusual deal with prosecutors to avoid indictment for covering up abusive priests in ministry.

Ten years before, Archbishop Sheehan had been sent to Santa Fe after the previous archbishop, Robert F. Sanchez, was forced to resign after admitting to affairs with women. On Archbishop Sanchez's watch, dozens of young people had been sexually assaulted by priests. Many of the priests had been assigned to parishes after stays in a nearby treatment center.

"Don't put your faith in the priests or the bishops," Archbishop Sheehan said he told his flock in Santa Fe, and will now tell the Catholics of Phoenix. "Put your faith in the Lord. Put your faith where it can't be hurt."

In interviews this week between sessions, these bishops said that prayer pulls them through, despair is not an option, and in time it is possible to see measurable results. They acknowledged that not all is well in their dioceses, that there are still aggrieved victims and alienated Catholics, but they sounded confident that some healing was going on.

The fraternity of fixers includes Bishop Wilton D. Gregory in Belleville, Ill., who is president of the bishops' conference; Bishop Sean P. O'Malley of Palm Beach, Fla., and before that, Fall River, Mass.; Joseph A. Galante, coadjutor bishop of Dallas; Archbishop Timothy M. Dolan of Milwaukee; and Bishop Daniel F. Walsh of Santa Rosa, Calif.

Two other bishops have served as interim administrators: Bishop Richard G. Lennon, in Boston; and Bishop Robert N. Lynch of St. Petersburg, who twice took the helm temporarily in Palm Beach after two consecutive bishops assigned there admitted to sexually abusing minors.

Boston is still without a permanent replacement for Cardinal Bernard F. Law six months after he was forced out by a torrent of newly released documents showing that he knew of child abusers among his priests.

The Rev. Thomas Reese, editor of the Catholic weekly America, said in an interview that Vatican officials were acutely aware that the fixer for Boston must have a clean track record on the abuse issue. "The Vatican doesn't like to be embarrassed by all these scandals," he said.

But he questioned whether, as the years pass, this team of firefighting bishops will have any edge over their brethren in their careers because, he said, "As time goes on, more and more of the bishops who get appointed will have no bad record on sexual abuse."

Three years ago, Bishop Walsh arrived in Santa Rosa to take over a diocese that was in turmoil because of $16 million in debt from sexual abuse settlements and a bishop who spent church money for personal use.

He visited parishes and hired auditors, publishing their findings in the diocesan newspaper. In his first year there, auditors identified 22 areas that needed improvement; last year, he said, there were none. A $20 million fund-raising campaign collected $17 million -- "encouraging," he said, for a diocese that includes depressed logging areas as well as wealthy wineries.

"You show the people that we're open, we have nothing to hide," he said in an interview. "We're not playing games with their funds."

Above all, he said: "You trust the people's faith. Their faith is very strong, and these crises or challenges make them more aware of how important their faith is to them in their everyday life."

The bishops said they sometimes try to earn back the trust of Catholics through small pastoral gestures. In some of these dioceses, victims feel they have been snubbed by bishops and chancery staff members, left begging for an acknowledgment of their pain, or for help paying for therapy or medical care.

In Phoenix, Archbishop Sheehan said that one of his first official acts as interim administrator was to authorize a private plane for the diocese's chancellor and two vicars general to travel in time to attend the funeral in northern Arizona of the carpenter killed in the former bishop's accident. He says he instructed the officials to offer the man's family money for funeral expenses.

Sandy Simonson, a leader of the Phoenix chapter of Voice of the Faithful, a lay group calling for accountability in the church, said that many Catholics there had grown deeply disillusioned when they learned of the sexual abuse cover-ups of their former bishop and welcomed a new one.

"The first thing he needs to do is to meet with the people, the faithful Catholics," Ms. Simonson said.

Archbishop Sheehan said he had already learned that lesson in Santa Fe. He says that there he has spoken with more than 150 people who said they were abused by priests, and prefers to meet with them individually. He said he did not listen to the advice of some church lawyers that expressions of remorse could be used in lawsuits against the church.

"I felt like I needed to be a priest and talk to people and assure them of the apology of the church for what has happened to them," Archbishop Sheehan said in a news conference here on Friday. "I have felt it is better to make a mistake by being too conciliatory rather than listening to the attorneys."

Archbishop Flynn was recently criticized in St. Paul-Minneapolis for canceling a meeting this spring with the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests. He was invited to meet with them here in St. Louis, too, but said he did not have time during the bishops meeting. At a news conference today, he said he preferred to meet on a "local level" with victims.

"I don't want these meetings to be anything but pastoral experiences," he said, "not a circuslike atmosphere."

The other bishop who has been called to fix two dioceses is Sean O'Malley, a Capuchin friar, who was dispatched last September to Palm Beach. Catholics there had just been hit with the news that their second bishop in a row -- the one they had thought would be their fixer, Anthony J. O'Connell -- had admitted to abusing minors.

Bishop O'Malley also has experience at healing a diocese in pain. He had worked for 10 years in Fall River, where the Rev. James Porter was accused of molesting dozens of children. Bishop O'Malley reached a settlement with the victims and instituted a policy on preventing abuse that would be studied by other dioceses.

At their meeting here today, the bishops heard a report on the progress they have made since last June, when they met in Dallas and introduced a sweeping set of policies intended to stem the abuse crisis. Among the steps taken last year, Archbishop Flynn was drafted to take over the chairmanship of the bishops' Ad Hoc Committee on Sexual Abuse. Once again he was serving as fixer by replacing a bishop who had lost his credibility on the abuse issue, this time Bishop John B. McCormack of Manchester, N.H., a diocese that this spring was granted criminal immunity in exchange for admitting that it failed to protect children adequately.

Today Archbishop Flynn reviewed the bishops' progress toward removing priests from ministry, appointing a national lay review board in an effort to keep the bishops accountable, and preparing for teams of auditors, some former Federal Bureau of Investigation agents, who will arrive in each diocese to check whether the bishops are complying with the new policies. After 20 years in which every bishop was essentially expected to be the "fixer" of his own diocese, the bishops have called in the outside contractors.

Archbishop Sheehan said that after 10 years in Santa Fe, he was seeing signs of new life in his diocese. He said he had just ordained five men to the priesthood, four as transitional deacons, and the largest class of permanent deacons ever -- 61 men in all. He said the number of registered Catholic families had increased by 50 percent.

"So it doesn't have to be all gloom and doom," he said. "I can see real hope for the church in Phoenix just as I have seen hope for the church in Santa Fe."



Original material copyright © 2004. Reproduce freely with attribution.