O'Brien, Diocese Sued; 19th Priest Accused of Abuse

By Joseph A. Reaves
Arizona Republic (Phoenix)
June 26, 2003

A lawsuit filed Wednesday accuses a former priest of the Phoenix Diocese of sexually molesting an altar boy decades ago and claims that retired Bishop Thomas J. O'Brien, then the head of the diocese, endangered other children by transferring the priest out of state when he learned of the allegations.

The suit accuses the Rev. Joseph Henn of serially molesting an altar boy at St. Mark's parish in east Phoenix from 1976 to '79. The altar boy, who now lives in California, was 12 to 15 years old at the time.

Henn's name has never surfaced publicly among the lists of priests accused criminally or in civil lawsuits of sexual misconduct in the Phoenix Diocese.

He is the 19th priest who worked in the diocese at one time or another to be publicly accused of molesting minors. Another 19 priests or church employees have been accused of sexual misconduct involving adults.

Attorneys for the diocese could not be reached for comment late Wednesday.

The lawsuit filed in Maricopa County Superior Court said the altar boy's parents learned in 1982 of allegations of sexual misconduct against Henn involving other children. They confronted their son who told them he too had been molested.

"Shortly after (they) learned that Henn had sexually abused and molested (their son), they contacted the diocese," the suit contends. "Initially the diocese refused to take any action. ... Later, Henn was transferred to a parish in Wisconsin."

O'Brien was vicar general, second in command, at the time the suit contends Henn molested the altar boy and was bishop when the priest was transferred to Wisconsin. He was named as a defendant in the suit along with 15 other members of the church hierarchy who were not publicly identified.

"Defendants knew or should have known that Henn was so incompetent or inappropriate for his position at St. Mark's and within the Phoenix Diocese that their use of him in that position involved an unreasonable risk of harm to others, in particular, minors," the suit says.

O'Brien acknowledged in writing last month that he put children in the Phoenix Diocese at risk by transferring priests accused of sexual misconduct and failing to notify either the priests' supervisors or parishioners of the allegations. Those admissions came in return for an agreement granting him immunity from prosecution for obstructing justice.

Legal experts have said those admissions could open the diocese to a wave of civil lawsuits. The suit filed Wednesday is the second brought against the church in the past two weeks.


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