Did the Diocese of Phoenix provide a home to 109 clergymen accused of sexual abuse?
A new report compiled by one of the nation’s leading law firms on clergy sexual abuse identified that many, saying they lived, worked, retired or visited in the territory of the diocese.
Many of the accused have been convicted of their crimes. Others were the subjects of civil lawsuits, and quite a few died before the accusations were revealed. Some were “credibly accused,” as the church says, in other dioceses and came to the Phoenix diocese later, sometimes no longer allowed to work as priests.
According to the diocese, none are working here now.
The latest compilation of perpetrators comes from Jeff Anderson and Associates, which has been involved in clergy abuse cases since the early 2000s.
About 50 priests, other clergy, and church staffers were identified 16 years ago, when Bishop Thomas O’Brien was still in office. Some of the identities were released by the diocese, others through the court system, and direct contact between abuse victims and the media.
On its website, the diocese now lists only 43, but it has not been updated to reflect religious communities, such as Jesuits and the like, that have ministries in the diocese.
The additional numbers in the Anderson report come from the inclusion of names released by religious orders that have ministries in the Phoenix area, and by adding in priests who were ordained in other dioceses, then came to Phoenix to vacation, work, or retire. The final group would be listed as accused abusers in their home dioceses.
Several on the Anderson list worked for other dioceses in the area now covered by the Phoenix diocese, which was carved out of the dioceses of Gallup, New Mexico, and Tucson in 1969. The diocese covers Maricopa, Yavapai, Mohave, and Coconino counties, as well as the Gila Indian Reservation. Navajo and Apache counties remain part of the Gallup Diocese, as well as the entire Navajo Reservation. The remainder of the state is part of the Diocese of Tucson.
“The distinctions” between how dioceses count accused abusers and where they should be identified “are artificial,” Anderson said.
“They all had been in the area and worked there,” he said from his home office in Minneapolis.
An accurate number of credibly accused clergy may never be determined, owing to the diocese’s history and those distinctions in counting.
It can be difficult to draw the line as to where an accused priest should be counted. In their bankruptcy proceedings, both Gallup and Tucson identified numerous clergy who worked in what later became the Phoenix diocese. (Anderson says he is not convinced that even those numbers, vetted by the U.S. Bankruptcy Court, are accurate.)
As a result, the local diocese does not consider itself responsible for those individuals. Any action against those men would originate in the home diocese, and victims seeking counseling or other church-provided assistance would have to go to the dioceses that employed those men.
As Anderson pointed out, for victims, such distinctions may not be important. The jurisdiction that counts is the county where any legal proceedings might take place.
The Phoenix diocese also has been home to several religious communities, the best known being the Jesuits, who operate Brophy Prep and St. Francis Xavier parish and school, and Franciscans, who pastor St. Mary’s Basilica and the Franciscan Renewal Center. Those groups do not report to the local bishop but rather to superiors in other states.
Several religious communities have in the past year released what they claim are comprehensive lists of abusers in their ranks.
Anderson points out that any priest working in any diocese serves only with the permission of the bishop.
Anderson said his firm has compiled similar reports in 25 other dioceses, and is working on others. In the past year or so, a Pennsylvania grand jury report identified more than 1,000 abusive priests. Accusations against former Washington, D.C., Cardinal Theodore McCarrick followed, and both sets of reports opened new avenues of inquiry nationwide, especially focused on bishops who covered up crimes.
Since then, numerous dioceses have released reports, and civil and criminal authorities are investigating in many states.
Back in 2003, when the abuse scandal initially unfolded, only a couple had released such lists, including the Crosier Fathers, who operate in Phoenix. The Phoenix diocese trickled out a few names of accused abusers who never were criminally accused or sued at the time, and a Maricopa County grand jury at the time identified only a handful of accused abusers.
Anderson, in a press release, said his firm believes “the Diocese of Phoenix does not make available to the public the full history, knowledge and context of the sexually abusive clerics within the diocese.”
The diocese includes on its website several lists of accused clergy.
One list includes 16 names of “priests and deacons who have been laicized (thrown out of the clergy) and/or removed from ministry due to sexual misconduct with a minor.”
It lists one other whose case is in the works in the Vatican.
A total of 18 priests are on the laicized/removed from ministry list for religious order priests.
Finally, the diocese lists eight men from outside dioceses “who may no longer serve” in the diocese due to an accusation.
That’s 43 names, a number that falls short of even what local journalists had compiled in 2002-2003. The diocese also links to lists provided by the Tucson and Gallup dioceses.
“Until full transparency and accountability exist, children remain in grave danger,” Anderson said.
There is no indication that the current Phoenix bishop, Thomas Olmsted, has strayed from the straight and narrow when it comes to following the latest church rules on dealing with abuse.
The diocese, in its own press release, said, “We pray that today serves as another step along their journey to healing.”
It added, “We stand united with the community, particularly with children and vulnerable adults, in praying and working for an end to the tragedy of sexual abuse.”
The diocese certainly could be facing more turmoil in the years to come, primarily in the legal system.
A new law extends the civil statute of limitations for abuse victims, and opens a two-year window for any victims whose accusations fall outside the new statute. There are no limitations on criminal cases beyond a county attorney’s discretion.
Many of the lawsuits filed against clergy in recent years were dismissed because of statute concerns.
Potential legal action aside, neither the Anderson list nor the diocese lists give the full story.
Left unsaid are impacts, most importantly upon victims, but also on the health of the church in terms of attendance, finances, and personnel. Nationwide, declines in Catholic membership numbers have been reported.
But the Phoenix diocese still claims to be home to more than 1 million Catholics, as it has since Olmsted became bishop in 2003.
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“With a report like this, survivors can see they are not alone,” Anderson said. “It can inspire them to tell someone, and it can bring them to further action.
“This serves public safety,” he said.
The diocese, besides the brief statements posted on its website, had no comment.
Michael Clancy is a former religion writer for the Arizona Republic.