O'Brien Makes News in Mexico
Arrest Viewed As 'Positive'

By Tessie Borden
The Arizona Republic [Mexico]
June 22, 2003

MEXICO CITY - The sequence of events that last week ended the career of Phoenix Bishop Thomas J. O'Brien played in the Mexican capital like local news, with stories on newspaper front pages and on the radio.

O'Brien has been charged in connection with a fatal hit-and-run accident on June 14. That came atop revelations over the past year that O'Brien covered up for priests who sexually abused children, and, among other things, moved some of them to Hispanic parishes, where church members might be less likely to complain.

The fact that O'Brien's troubles and priest sex scandals across the United States have gotten an airing here reflects Mexicans' new attitude toward their church.

"We are living in new times," said Bernardo Barranco, president of the Mexican Center for Religious Studies, a think tank. "This should get broad diffusion so that people in Mexico can see that the untouchability of ministers of the clergy has its limits."

The unfolding pedophile priest scandal across the United States has brought revelations here of cases where priests sexually abused children or had sex with female parishioners.

A ripple effect

"What happens there, especially in an institution that aspires to be universal, generates reaction everywhere," said Maria Consuelo Mejia, director of Catholic Women for the Right to Choose in Mexico, a group that advocates changes in church doctrine on contraception, homosexuality and the right to choose abortion. "People are beginning to strongly question these abuses. . . . This reaction is occurring because these hierarchs, and the church itself, have lost credibility."

The respected news magazine Proceso last year published an accounting of known priest pedophile cases, including that of Leopoldo Romero, whom Jalisco authorities discovered in a car with a boy in his underwear in 2001; Nicolas Aguilar, who was accused of abusing at least 60 children of both sexes in Puebla state in 1997; and Marcial Maciel, the founder of the Legion of Christ movement who was accused of pederasty in the 1950s by former students who are now adults. None of the priests has faced criminal charges for their reported behavior.

More recently, the Catholic Church has been dealing with law-breaking of another sort.

Bishops in several Mexican states have been accused of violating the Mexican Constitution by endorsing political stands from the pulpit, mainly against abortion and homosexuality.

Not above the law

"All this comes to light, and we become aware of a web of complicity of the Catholic Church that extends beyond the local to the international," Barranco said. "The O'Brien case is very positive. It makes priests more like citizens. The church must respect secular law. It is not above it."

Mejia said the closed, hierarchical nature of the Catholic Church has made it arrogant and resistant to change. But she said no institution should be considered above the laws of the countries where it operates.

"We want our church to change," she said. "There are several movements within the church that are already working for this."

Meantime, Dean and Caroll Filer, two Phoenix parishioners who run a ministry serving indigenous Catholics in Chiapas, said the events of the past week have been difficult to digest. Dean Filer said he saw O'Brien at a Hispanic Mass the day before he was arrested.

"He seemed very jovial, like he was getting along fine," Filer said. "Monday was a very sad day for us. It really hit us because we had talked to him on Sunday."

Filer said he has faith the Catholic Church will pull through the scandal and emerge stronger. But he suggested that if the church wants to mend its relationship with its Hispanic members, it should consider naming a Hispanic priest to succeed O'Brien.

"I think we need one," he said of a Hispanic bishop. "It would strengthen some ties that Father O'Brien - I don't want to say he broke them, but he bent them pretty badly."


Any original material on these pages is copyright © 2004. Reproduce freely with attribution.