Bishop Accountability
  O'Brien took in priest despite abuse claims

By Joseph A. Reaves and Kelly Ettenborough
Arizona Republic
February 5, 2003

Bishop Thomas O'Brien agreed in 1997 to a request from Boston Cardinal Bernard Law to accept the transfer of a priest with a record of sexual abuse allegations so severe that he was banned from ministry in one diocese and nearly defrocked in another, public records show.

The records, obtained by The Arizona Republic, reveal that O'Brien assigned the Rev. John M. Picardi to a Scottsdale parish less than two years after a sex abuse review board established by Law recommended considering the priest's defrocking.

That recommendation was handed down Jan. 4, 1996, but rescinded April 3, 1997, after Picardi appealed his case to the Vatican.

Three weeks after the review board's recommendations were overturned, Law wrote O'Brien to say Picardi wanted to move to Arizona. The cardinal asked the bishop to consider letting Picardi "begin his ministry again in Phoenix."

O'Brien agreed and assigned Picardi to St. Maria Goretti parish in Scottsdale from October 1997 to July 2001, when he was transferred to San Francisco de Asis parish in Flagstaff.

Kim Sue Lia Perkes, spokeswoman for the bishop, said Picardi, 46, was placed on paid administrative leave Tuesday while his case is reviewed by the diocese.

"In the five years (Father Picardi) has been here, there have been no allegations of sexual misconduct against him," Perkes said. "There may have been enough here for the bishop to have concerns, but he acted on a recommendation given to him."

Perkes acknowledged the Phoenix Diocese had a file "several inches thick" on Picardi that detailed sexual abuse allegations filed against him in New Jersey and Boston. But she said Law, in his letter to O'Brien, emphasized that Picardi had "served the church of Boston well" and was "free to minister within the archdiocese without restriction."

"We think this is an innocent mistake, but to the public it looks like a huge ordeal," she said.

The public documents The Republic obtained were part of newly released files being used by Eric MacLeish Jr., a prominent Boston attorney who has represented more than 325 sexual abuse victims nationwide and who is deposing Law this week.

Law, 71, resigned as head of the Archdiocese of Boston in December after dozens of priests signed a petition saying they had lost confidence in his handling of about 450 allegations of sexual abuse.

"This was a particularly upsetting file for us because now we know the Diocese of Phoenix, and more importantly the parishioners in Scottsdale and Flagstaff, did not have access to this information," said MacLeish, whose firm, Greenberg Traurig, has a Phoenix office. "They were kept in the dark."

The files show that Picardi was ordained in 1983 and served in the Boston Archdiocese until late February 1992, when he was accused of raping an adult male youth minister while on vacation in Florida.

Picardi was placed on sick leave March 2, 1992, and ordered to undergo counseling.

Seven months later, Law wrote Picardi advising him that his sick leave was over and that he was being sent to the Diocese of Paterson, N.J.

In January 1995, while still serving in New Jersey, the records show Picardi was accused of lifting the skirt of a 12-year-old, fifth-grade girl and fondling her.

Those charges never were substantiated, but an investigation by the New Jersey Division of Youth and Family Services determined there was enough evidence to find that Picardi's "actions placed the child at some unnecessary and undue risk of harm."

Susan Manion, lead investigator, notified Picardi on June 6, 1995, that both state and church officials agreed he should be permanently banned from working with children.

Law underscored that decision in a letter to New Jersey church officials two weeks later when he acknowledged a "clear understanding that Father Picardi will not be assigned to parishes in the Diocese of Paterson now or in the future."

In January 1996, a memorandum compiled for the sex abuse review board in the Archdiocese of Boston laid out in detail the 1992 rape allegations involving the adult male youth minister in Florida and the groping incident with the New Jersey schoolgirl.

The two-page document ended with the review board's recommendation that Picardi "not be returned to parish ministry or other ministry that involves minors" and that discussions continue on whether he should be defrocked.

After Picardi successfully appealed the board's recommendation in April 1997, Law asked O'Brien to accept the priest in the Phoenix Diocese and gave a cursory account of some of the allegations.

"There have been two incidents during his ministry which have caused concern, however, and I want to apprise you of them," Law wrote.

The cardinal described the incident with the youth minister in Florida as "homosexual behavior with an adult."

He noted that both church and civil investigators had looked into the New Jersey allegations and "concluded that the girl had been touched but that it was impossible to say if the event constituted sexual abuse."

Perkes, the Phoenix Diocese spokeswoman, told The Republic that O'Brien was concerned about the allegations but considered the Florida incident a violation of Picardi's vow of celibacy, not an incident of abuse. Perkes also noted that no charges were filed in the schoolgirl case.

"At that time, we had no reason to doubt the integrity of the Archdiocese of Boston with regards to its priests," she said.

Parishioners at San Francisco de Asis in Flagstaff reacted with shock at the news of Picardi's past and were concerned about his transfer.

"If Bishop O'Brien knew it, he never should have allowed it," said Loretta Velasco, a Coconino County employee and parishioner. "It's another nail on the coffin for the amount of respect that I have for the bishop."

Reporter Mark Shaffer contributed to this article.


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