Dark Cloud of Alleged Sex Abuse Continues to Follow Former Phoenix Bishop O'Brien

Saint Mary's Basilica sits next to the Diocese of Phoenix
Saint Mary's Basilica sits next to the Diocese of Phoenix Stuart Warner

click to enlarge A statue of Pope John Paul II welcomes visitors to the Diocese of Phoenix, which is named in a new lawsuit by an alleged sexual assault victim - STUART WARNER
A statue of Pope John Paul II welcomes visitors to the Diocese of Phoenix, which is named in a new lawsuit by an alleged sexual assault victim
Stuart Warner

The dark cloud  of child sex-abuse allegations still follows the former bishop of Phoenix.

Years after he resigned from the top post in the Catholic diocese here, after acknowledging he knew that priests he supervised had sexually abused children, 81-year-old Thomas O’Brien now faces new allegations in court that he was himself an abuser.

He has denied the accusation and last week won a partial victory when a judge tossed out four of 14 claims against him in a civil suit brought by a man identified only as Joseph W.

The man claims, in a suit filed in Maricopa County Superior Court in 2016, that O’Brien assaulted him from 1977 to 1982. The suits says the attacks occurred when he attended second to fifth grades at the St. Aquinas and St. Vincent de Paul Catholic schools and parishes in Litchfield Park and Phoenix, respectively.

According to the lawsuit, the abuse occurred before or during church services and involved kissing and touching as well as oral intercourse by and to the priest.

Joseph W., who lives in Tucson, says in court documents that he suppressed the memories of these attacks until two years earlier, when he readied his son for baptism. The abuse caused Joseph W., now 47,  to suffer for almost his entire life, the complaint says, naming among other things distress, disgrace, and humiliation prompting psychological therapy and loss of income.

He is seeking general, punitive, and exemplary damages of an unspecified amount.

click to enlarge Saint Mary's Basilica sits next to the Diocese of Phoenix - STUART WARNER
Saint Mary's Basilica sits next to the Diocese of Phoenix
Stuart Warner
The suit names O’Brien, the diocese, and numerous seminary schools and parishes. The complaint alleges abuse, assault, neglect, fraud, breach of duty, conspiracy, and more.

On August 1, Judge David Udall dismissed the entire case against a Goodyear parish, and four negligence claims against O’Brien.

He accepted, in part, the argument laid out by the church’s lawyers in their motion to dismiss much of the case.

They argued, in essence, that Joseph W. was long on inferences, but short on specifics. And, they argued, case law did not support some of his claims.

“That is what plaintiff is attempting to do here: stretch one or two claims into 14. Plaintiff has already brought claims for sexual assault and sexual battery in this case. If he successful on those claims, he should be able to recover damages for his injuries,” the motion says, concluding that Joseph W. shouldn’t be allowed to tack on other claims.

Those other claims are based largely on the context of the church’s dark history.

More than a dozen lawsuits were brought against the Catholic church in Phoenix, its leaders, and its institutions, most around 2003.

A year earlier, the Maricopa County Attorney’s Office concluded a grand jury probe into allegations of priests in the Phoenix diocese molesting and sexually assaulting children. It resulted in O’Brien stepping down. He admitted knowing about the abuse and protecting dozens of suspected pedophile priests by rotating their parish assignments. Investigators found no evidence of abuse at the hands of O’Brien, however.

The 2016 lawsuit quotes O’Brien from that time, when he said he “allowed Roman Catholic priests under his supervision to have contact with minors after becoming aware of allegations of criminal sexual misconduct” and that he transferred “offending priests to situations where children could be further victimized.”

The latest case names 61 priests and church officials who, the suit claims, “have been sexually assaulting countless other children in, among other locations, Phoenix for decades.”

The suit counts “at least 73” children sexually abused in the Phoenix diocese by these men. It claims the church should have known the risk that O’Brien posed before and during the time he had contact with the boy Joseph W.

“Defendants could have stopped this abuse from continuing, and undoubtedly could have saved other boys from subsequent abuse,” it added. “Instead, defendants told no one, protected their clearly pedophilic brethren and their own financial interests, and as a result the abuse continued."

"Bishop O’Brien was never assigned to any of the parishes or schools identified in the lawsuit. Bishop O’Brien categorically denies the allegations." — Diocese of Phoenix statement

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The lawsuit blames O’Brien and the church for covering up allegations of abuse by only identifying church officials who are subject to court proceedings. That policy, the suit says, “has created a deadly environment for today’s children.”

It also meant that priests under O’Brien’s authority were not registered as sex offenders, and so the public was unwittingly put in harm’s way, the suit alleges.

The diocese released a statement on the allegations raised in the suit.

"Bishop O’Brien was never assigned to any of the parishes or schools identified in the lawsuit," the statement said. "Bishop O’Brien categorically denies the allegations."

O’Brien was never prosecuted criminally for his role in the church sex abuse scandal.

But weeks after he stepped down as Bishop of Phoenix in 2003, he was caught up in a different criminal probe, court records show.

He was driving back from a confirmation ceremony in Buckeye when a man stepped into Glendale Avenue midblock near 19th Avenue. O’Brien’s car struck the man, upending him and smashing the windshield. O’Brien drove on, without stopping or adjusting his speed, to his home a few minutes away.

He never inspected the damage. The man died.

He never contacted police, even though church officials said detectives wanted to interview him about a hit-and-run fatality.

When police showed up at his house, he didn’t answer the door immediately. When he did, he showed investigators the car and cooperated with their questioning. He told them he didn’t stop because he thought he had hit an animal or somebody had thrown a rock at him. He also said that he didn’t call police because he assumed they would contact him. He told officers he regretted both actions.

He was booked into jail, posted $45,000 bond the next day, and was charged.

A jury found him guilty of leaving the scene of a serious injury or fatal accident.

A court report measured the appropriate penalty.

“His actions in this instance were irresponsible and callous,” the report said.

But it noted O’Brien had no prior criminal history, and didn’t try to conceal the car. The report noted, “It is important to note the defendant was never accused of directly causing Jim Reed’s death.”

A judge sentenced O’Brien to six months in jail, four years probation, and 1,000 hours of community service. His driver’s license was revoked for five years.

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Sean Holstege is the editor of Phoenix New Times. He's been a print news reporter for 35 years. He was an investigative reporter at The Arizona Republic and the Oakland Tribune. He won a Sigma Delta Chi award for investigative reporting. He’s covered transportation, terrorism, the border, disasters, child welfare, courts, and breaking news.
Contact: Sean Holstege