Judgment Day

After a year of denials, Bishop O'Brien finally admits what we knew all along

Newspapers are notoriously short of institutional knowledge. Writers, typically wandering iconoclasts inclined toward the negative, usually grow weary of a city after a few years and soon go searching for newer pastures.

I had been at New Times only two years when executive editor Mike Lacey, who started this paper back in 1970, walked into my office last April with a short history lesson.

Bishop Thomas O'Brien had been on television the night before heralding his administration's handling of priest molestation cases. O'Brien's message: Phoenix was not Boston, he was not Cardinal Law. His parishioners need not worry, he announced. There were no pedophile priests in the Valley and the Phoenix Diocese had never covered up any cases of a priest abusing a child.

Lacey made a simple suggestion. I might want to go back into the archives and read the work of Terry Greene Sterling. It would help me realize what a lying hypocrite O'Brien is.

Indeed, in 1989, New Timeshad exposed O'Brien's cover-up of three outrageous cases of child abuse. Father George Bredemann, John Maurice Giandelone and Joseph Marcel Lessard all were allowed to continue violating young boys after O'Brien had knowledge of the priests' sordid activities.

So I wrote my own history column on April 25, 2002, with the suggestion there was no reason to believe history hadn't repeated itself since 1989.

Sure enough, it had. A few days after the column appeared, I received an e-mail from a Chandler woman named Doris Kennedy. She explained that O'Brien had gone to great lengths to cover up her and her husband's allegations that one of O'Brien's priests, Father Patrick Colleary, who O'Brien already knew was a sexual predator, had molested their son at the Kennedy home.

My column the next week about the plight of the Kennedy family set off a firestorm and, on May 25, a county attorney investigation. A few days later I met with a county attorney employee to pass along leads in the Colleary case as well as allegations against a Glendale priest, Father Henry Perez.

For the next year, O'Brien and his obnoxious stonewalling attorney, Greg Leisse, continued to deny that the bishop had any involvement in covering up the growing number of sex abuse cases coming out of the Phoenix Diocese.

Indeed, in late 2002, O'Brien and Leisse lambasted two of Arizona's most prominent attorneys, Ernest Calderon, president of the Arizona Bar Association, and Michael Manning, lead attorney in the fraud cases against Charles Keating and Fife Symington, for independently suggesting a deal with the County Attorney's Office in which O'Brien would give up some of his authority as bishop if prosecutors would offer him immunity from prosecution in the sex abuse cases.

That proffered settlement ultimately served as the template for the deal O'Brien agreed to last month, which was unveiled by County Attorney Rick Romley on Monday. Romley released details of the agreement while announcing the indictment of five more Phoenix priests on charges of sexual misconduct.

One of those priests is Patrick Colleary, who has since run off to Ireland (Interpol is now in charge of tracking him down). A sixth priest who would have been indicted died last month before charges were brought. So it goes. That priest was Father Henry Perez, who would have faced six counts of sexual misconduct for his abuse of children at Our Lady of Perpetual Help in Glendale and St. Mary's Parish in Chandler.

O'Brien's admissions in the agreement are stunningly blunt, perhaps the most straightforward admissions of wrongdoing by any American bishop regarding sexual abuse by priests. And his admission confirms everything New Times, family members of abuse victims and prosecutors have been saying for the last two decades.

O'Brien admitted that he knowingly placed priests accused of inappropriate sexual contact with minors in jobs in which the priests continued to work with children. He also admitted that he had transferred priests accused of sexual abuse without notifying the leaders or parishioners of the new church about the priests' past.

This is a profound victory for the dogged investigators and prosecutors at the County Attorney's Office, the Catholic parishioners who wanted nothing more than assurance that their children would be safe in school and church, and for those of us who have spent the last year being called everything from Know Nothings to devil-worshipers for investigating and writing about this scandal.

The agreement calls for sweeping changes in how the Phoenix Diocese handles allegations of sexual misconduct. It also calls for the Diocese to pay $300,000 to the Maricopa County Attorney's Victim Compensation Fund, which helps compensate child victims of criminal sexual misconduct, and $300,000 to finance counseling for those victimized by sexual abuse.

But prosecutors failed to get what should have been the key piece of any quasi-plea agreement:

The resignation of Bishop Thomas O'Brien.

O'Brien has agreed only to give up some administrative duties, and will appoint a sort of chief of staff who will oversee the day-to-day operations of the Diocese.

The bishop will, more or less, continue to serve as the ceremonial head of the local church, much like British royalty, until his mandatory retirement in 2011 or his stepping down for health reasons.

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