For the last decade, Archbishop Michael Sheehan has been a leader in a little known clique of American Catholic prelates known as the "fixer bishops."
They are the Pope's relief pitchers in America. When a diocese or archdiocese is shelled by scandal, it's the job of a proven "fixer bishop" to come in and begin the healing.
Only the worst problems get the best fixers. When Bishop Thomas O'Brien became the first American bishop ever indicted on felony charges (for leaving the scene of an accident), allegations that came on the heels of the bishop's landmark deal with county prosecutors to avoid prosecution for felony obstruction of justice, the Diocese of Phoenix immediately catapulted to the top of Rome's list of America's most troubled congregations.
You already know O'Brien's story. A car hit and killed a 235-pound jaywalking pedestrian named Jim Reed and kept on going. Witnesses got the license number, and the vehicle was traced to the bishop. The next day, a priest called O'Brien and told him police were looking for him. Instead of contacting them, O'Brien called to have his windshield repaired.
Another day passed. Finally, police questioned O'Brien and impounded his car. Its windshield was shattered, obviously hit by a very large object, and traces of Reed's blood and body were found on the car.
The bishop told police he thought he had hit a cat or a dog or a rock.
You know, one of those stray tigers, or werewolves, or one of those huge two-legged rocks that scream and bleed when you hit them.
To me, the fatal hit and run was a stunning development not because of O'Brien's despicable conduct (what's new?), but because of how perfectly the scenario revealed and provided justice for the same wretched character flaws for which O'Brien had gone unpunished in his handling of the sex abuse scandal in his church.
Providence or not, Thomas O'Brien got his.
Now, the more important issue: the Phoenix diocese gets the likes of Michael Sheehan.
And nationally, thanks to O'Brien and Cardinal Law of Boston, it is becoming more imperative for advancement in the Catholic Church to be a hard-line reformer with a clean record.
Michael Sheehan is a man with a relatively clean record and a history of doing the right thing for his flock. And as of this summer, it's becoming clear that if you want to get ahead in the church, you'll have to prove yourself to be more like Michael Sheehan and less like Thomas O'Brien.
In 1993, Sheehan, then bishop of the Lubbock (Texas) diocese, was assigned to take over leadership of the Archdiocese of Santa Fe, which, at the time, was crippled by two scandals.
His predecessor, Robert Sanchez, had just resigned after three women accused him of having sexual relationships with them when they were teenagers.
At the same time, the Santa Fe archdiocese was being pounded by nearly 200 claims of sexual abuse by priests. Most of the allegations related to priests who were quietly moved into New Mexico churches after spending time at the notorious Servants of the Paraclete Treatment Center, where priests from around the country were sent to treat psychiatric problems, including pedophilia. The center has since been closed.
It was a massive cleansing and rebuilding project for Sheehan.
In all, Sheehan expelled 20 priests. He implemented a genuine zero-tolerance policy regarding sexual misconduct by priests. He implemented police background checks and AIDS testing for those joining the priesthood. In 1994, he personally contacted all the victims of clergy abuse, apologized and offered counseling.
Since 1994, after Sheehan's new sexual abuse policies were in place, there has been only one new allegation of sexual misconduct against a priest in New Mexico.
During the 1990s, the Santa Fe archdiocese had paid out an estimated $25 million to victims of predatory priests, which nearly put it into bankruptcy.
But it has since bounced back under Sheehan's leadership. Sheehan's fundraising efforts have lifted the church out of debt. And more than 17,000 families have either joined or rejoined the church since his arrival.
His work in Santa Fe has become a template for the church's new "fixers."
Their job description is simple:
Reach out to victims, work openly with prosecutors and civil attorneys, discipline bad priests, relieve the concerns of current parishioners, raise money and recruit new members with the promise that a bright new future for the church has already begun.
That's what Sheehan is already beginning to do in Phoenix.
"He has a proven track record," says Barbara Blaine, founder of the 4,500-member Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests. "But we'll see. He has quite a mess to clean up there."
Sheehan already has made one mistake in the eyes of local abuse victims. He announced he would be keeping two of O'Brien's top henchmen, Dale Fushek and Richard Moyers, in their positions as vicar generals.
The problem, abuse victims say: It was O'Brien's vicar generals who did most of O'Brien's dirty work in dealing with parents and children who tried to report sexual abuse by priests.
"Those were the people who dealt with us," says Sheri Roy, an abuse victim and a member of the local chapter of SNAP. "They can't be left in control if things are truly going to get better."
That means that Fushek, Moyers, chancellor Sister Mary Ann Winters, vice chancellor Michael Diskin and general counsel Greg Leisse all must go.
Hopefully this can be done without any more dead pedestrians.
And although Sheehan has a good record as a reformer, the truth is, he isn't going to be around Phoenix very long. Sheehan will only be running the Phoenix diocese until a new bishop is found, a process that will probably take six months to a year.
Sheehan even could be gone before a new bishop is named. Because of his success in taking over scandal-plagued archdiocese and because he's on the short list of "fixer bishops," he is considered by church insiders to be on a short list to replace Cardinal Bernard Law in Boston.
If Sheehan goes, it is unlikely the Phoenix diocese will get another reformer with Sheehan's proven record.
Which leaves the picture murky as to who will succeed him.
"It has to be someone from the outside," Roy says.
One thing we do know: The next bishop will be a protégé of Michael Sheehan's, not Thomas O'Brien's.
And this means that, whatever the bishop's name, he will better than the bishop before him. And this means that whoever he is, the Diocese of Phoenix can finally begin the process of healing that was impossible under Thomas O'Brien.
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