Silent Witness

Bishop Thomas O'Brien has a history of covering for pedophile priests and obstructing justice. Has he really repented?

From guest editorials in the Sunday paper to letters read to congregations across the Valley, Bishop Thomas O'Brien has been on an aggressive campaign to sell himself as a longtime progressive leader in the fight against pedophile priests.

In reality, O'Brien should instead be confessing to nearly 20 years of outrageous stonewalling.

"For us, he's been nothing but an obstructionist," a Maricopa County Attorney's Office official told me.

For victims, too, he's been nothing but an obstructionist.

And for the media, he continues to be nothing but an obstructionist. When this newspaper revealed rampant sexual abuse a decade ago, he stonewalled. Today, when the newspaper asked for proof that things had changed, he stonewalled, refusing to answer even the most basic questions.

Other dioceses with troubled pasts have turned over their records to law enforcement, records going back 40 years.

O'Brien has done nothing but ask the public to trust him.

Here is the record of that man who insists that we have faith in him. It is every bit as deplorable as the revelations emerging from dioceses back East.

In October of 1989, New Times writer Terry Greene Sterling broke the story of the cover-up and gross mishandling of three pedophile priests in the Phoenix Diocese.

There was Father George Bredemann, who liked to take parish boys to a ramshackle hut in the desert for weekends of naked frolicking. Father George is serving a 45-year sentence for his crimes.

There was Father John Maurice Giandelone, who was caught giving oral sex to a 15-year-old boy, a boy with whom Giandelone admitted having a two-year sexual relationship that included oral sex in the rectory moments before Mass.

There was Father Joseph Marcel Lessard, who was caught giving oral sex to a 13-year-old boy in the boy's home. Father Joe had told the boy's parents he just wanted to go check out the kid's waterbed.

In all three cases, O'Brien, the bishop in Phoenix since 1982, downplayed early warnings about the priests, then used lawyerly obfuscation and evasion tactics to squelch the flow of information to parishioners, prosecutors and the press. As the 1990s wore on, O'Brien and his attorneys fought for confidentiality agreements around civil settlements in the cases.

At the same time, O'Brien savaged the media, opposing attorneys and "the unfaithful" for pursuing the issue as he wrote treacly letters begging judges for leniency for his molesters.

In each case, O'Brien argued that the priests should serve no prison time. In the case of Father Bredemann, O'Brien argued that Bredemann was "showing remorse for his actions" and had done "many good things for his parish."

And as some of Arizona's most prominent Catholic laypeople began pushing for reform, O'Brien kept providing cover for child molesters.

In 1993, Father Alanson "Lan" Sherwood was sentenced to 10 years in prison for molesting boys.

O'Brien had known since 1986 that Sherwood was trouble. That year, police caught Sherwood masturbating at Pleasure World, an adult bookstore.

Had O'Brien checked, he would have also discovered Sherwood had been arrested two years earlier on the same offense.

Instead of defrocking the priest or placing him in counseling, O'Brien sent Sherwood to St. Benedict's Church in Chandler, where Sherwood oversaw youth programs and altar boys.

While he was there, he molested 22 boys.

Sherwood's defenders in the Diocese explained that the 22 kids weren't members of the parish. They were just street kids strapped for cash who Sherwood picked up when he couldn't find a suitable adult male for oral sex.

During the investigation of Sherwood, diaries and videotapes were discovered in which he documented 1,840 homosexual liaisons between 1984 and 1993, or about one every two days. The priest documented that he spent $14,000 on his sexual escapades.

Impressive figures for a celibate man.

As Rome burned, O'Brien continued to lay blame on prosecutors and the media.

Lucky for O'Brien, his flock fought for accountability. In 1995, after 14 months of development, a 22-member church commission made up of many of Arizona's top minds put together one of the best and strongest diocesan policies on sexual misconduct in the country.

At least it reads that way. As has always been the case with O'Brien, he refuses to reveal any meaningful details.

I talked to a prominent Phoenix attorney and Phoenix doctor who both sit on Diocesan sexual misconduct boards. The boards field accusations and, through interviews with the accusers and the accused, determine if the allegations have merit. If the charges are deemed credible, police are contacted, the bishop is contacted and a rigid investigatory protocol begins.

Whether the committee deems the allegations legitimate or not, those making the accusations are advised to contact police.

Both the doctor and attorney helped shape the Diocesan sexual misconduct policy and both have proven, in my experience with them on public policy issues, that they are people who won't settle for cheap rhetoric from the bishop.

"It did change seven years ago," says the doctor, who wished not to be identified. "Problem priests are genuinely being pursued in a very intellectually honest way. The mood of the Diocese does seem to have moved from protecting priests to protecting parishioners."

"The initial process has been taken out of the hands of the bishop," the attorney says. "It's no longer a partisan process."

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