Moral Minority

Bishop Thomas O'Brien is banking on attorney Michael Manning to save the soul of the Phoenix Diocese. The problem: O'Brien still has demons in his office.

In a stunning and welcome reversal, Bishop Thomas O'Brien is now apparently cooperating with the Maricopa County Attorney's investigation of the alleged sexual misconduct of Father Patrick Colleary, whose sins you first read about in this column.

The Phoenix Diocese not only agreed to comply fully with a grand jury subpoena for Colleary's files, but also asked the county attorney to send a broader subpoena seeking all files documenting sexual misconduct with a minor by priests or any diocesan employee.

Since this reversal, O'Brien has removed three priests: Joseph Briceno, Joseph Lessard and Harold Graf. He also promised to move more aggressively in defrocking three of the Valley's most notorious abusers, Mark Lehman, Lan Sherwood and George Bredemann, chronic abusers of children who have been the subjects of several New Times stories dating back to 1989.

Attorney Michael Manning
Paolo Vescia
Attorney Michael Manning

O'Brien has also promised to sweep the files of all Catholic churches, schools and other institutions for records of allegations of sexual misconduct. According to O'Brien's new attorney, Mike Manning, the bishop explicitly told his attorneys that any evidence of his own criminal negligence or obstruction should be immediately sent to the county attorney.

Any new complaints the Diocese receives, Manning and O'Brien say, will be turned over immediately to county attorney investigators.

This is a remarkable turnaround and a courageous new path for the bishop and the Diocese of Phoenix.

There's good reason to fear it soon will be aborted.

According to diocese insiders, a battle is brewing among attorneys and other advisers for the ear of Bishop O'Brien.

In my mind, it's nothing less than a Book of Revelations-style battle between good and evil.

On one side, you have the architect of the Diocese's stunning new glasnost, Mike Manning, arguably Arizona's most respected attorney. Manning has had the bishop's ear for the last month. And Manning is the only person County Attorney Rick Romley fully trusts in the Diocese.

On the other side, you have the Diocese's longtime general counsel, Greg Leisse, and another attorney, Jim Belanger, who many credit more than Bishop O'Brien for the outrageous history of arrogance and obstruction in the Phoenix Diocese.

Neither Bishop O'Brien nor Leisse responded to my requests for interviews on the subject.

Belanger said he could not comment on the internal legal politics of the Diocese, but did say:

"If we have a properly constituted grand jury subpoena, the Diocese will respond to that."

That is vastly different language from Manning's response to Romley's subpoena. "As I indicated," Manning wrote June 17, "we will begin the process by cooperating fully in your investigation."

Insiders say O'Brien apparently is beginning to listen to Leisse and Belanger again.

If this is true and the bishop is considering returning to gamesmanship, the bishop has several downsides to consider:

• Manning will leave. He will not be a part of the kind of outrageous behavior he has fought all his career. With him will go any goodwill and trust from outside the church.

• Investigators will raid the diocesan offices.

• Lawsuits, augmented by the bishop's obstruction, will bankrupt the Diocese.

• O'Brien will be removed by his own parishioners, many of whom already are calling for his ouster.

The easy solution: Stick with Manning.

Mike Manning, if you didn't know, is the remarkably deft slayer of the famed dragons of Charles Keating, Fife Symington and Joe Arpaio. Manning has been deified in the press for the last 15 years because he nearly always finds the highest moral ground in monumental battles.

If you've read Tucson author Charles Bowden's wonderful book on the savings and loan disaster of the 1980s, Trust Me, you can't help but see Manning as the brilliant, ethical, hardworking protagonist fighting the greedy moneychangers of that decade.

After two years of watching Manning and working with him on several stories, I have no reason not to share that respect for him.

That said, however, Manning, a lifelong quietly devout Catholic, clearly has a deep admiration for O'Brien, an admiration that must skew his objectivity. Manning also is a close friend to O'Brien's likely successor, Reverend Dale Fushek, for whom the Diocese settled a sexual harassment complaint for $45,000.

Indeed, Manning began discussing new legal strategies for the Diocese because of revelations regarding Fushek.

In early March, I began investigating accusations that the church had quietly settled numerous sexual harassment cases against Fushek.

Fushek got wind that I was calling around and contacted Manning for legal advice.

Manning apparently told Fushek that he knew me and would call me. The truth, Manning told me at the time, was that there was only "one, small, no-touch settlement regarding an adult" against Fushek. In other words, there had been a settlement for nuisance value over an allegation that did not involve physical contact and did not involve a minor. Manning said he knew the facts because he was on the board of the youth organization Fushek headed. According to Manning, that was all there was to the story.

Finding no verification of other settlements, or other credible accusations, I believed Manning and believed a small settlement wasn't newsworthy considering Fushek has ministered to thousands of young people and adults in the last two decades.

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