Balls in the Air

Page 8 of 9

"Did Rick try to hurt my career after Liz came forward about Barnett?" he asks. "Sure. He put us through a miserable experience, him and [chief deputy] Paul Ahler, and they should be ashamed of themselves. It was an unprovoked attack to try to shut us up."

In May 2002, Rick Romley announced a criminal investigation into the role of the Catholic Diocese of Phoenix in the burgeoning pedophile-priests scandal.

A grand jury investigation and a spate of lawsuits confirmed what Romley long had suspected: Bishop Thomas O'Brien and his aides for years had been covering up allegations of sexual misconduct with children by predatory priests.

In fact, O'Brien often had transferred his pedophiles to other parishes in his 430,000-member diocese rather than report them to the police.

To avoid a likely criminal indictment on charges of obstructing justice, O'Brien in May 2003 signed a painfully constructed agreement admitting his wrongdoing, and made other once-unthinkable concessions to the county attorney.

But fate would not allow the bishop time to regroup after the public humiliation of the agreement and accompanying revelations. The following month, O'Brien fatally struck a Phoenix man near the intersection of 19th Avenue and Glendale.

The prelate fled without stopping after slamming into the man, and later was convicted of leaving the scene of a fatal accident, a felony.

The hit-and-run accident finally cost O'Brien his job. But he avoided jail time, and currently is serving a four-year probated term.

Romley says the church scandal probably had more impact on him than any other case in his tenure.

"What really was different on this case was that the church was supposed to be this moral compass," he says. "It burst another bubble. You see so many bad things, but a church? I guess you don't want to believe that the church is almost sanctioning the priest's behavior -- 'Let's just transfer him to another church in the Hispanic community because they don't ever talk bad about priests.'

"I have no respect for Bishop O'Brien, but it wasn't just him. The cover-up was at the highest of levels -- all the way to Rome. I fail to understand why anybody, once they knew of these issues, wouldn't step up and say, 'This stops now!' The pope has been against gay marriages and so many other issues. Why wasn't he strong in this area?"

Sex-crimes unit chief Cindi Nannetti says she pushed Romley to seek a criminal indictment of O'Brien as the investigation of the bishop and the diocese bore fruit.

"I was thinking more of it as a punishment issue against the bishop than the bigger picture," Nannetti says. "I said to Rick, 'No, no, no,' when he said he wasn't going for a grand jury indictment. I know now that we never would have gotten those admissions of wrongdoing from the bishop if the grand jury had indicted. Rick was right. The way it went down did more [to move] the church forward than having O'Brien be able to position himself as a martyr."

Romley remains surprisingly ambivalent about his decision not to seek the indictment against O'Brien.

"I was not at all happy with the resolution we came up with," he says. "I know people can question me on that, and it was a tough call. But our goal was to try to stop the abuse in the future as well as to prosecute priests who had done these terrible things."

Last January, Romley announced he wouldn't be running for what would have been a shoo-in election to a fifth term as county attorney.

Rumors immediately swirled about his future political plans, the most obvious one being a possible run against Arizona Governor Janet Napolitano. Naturally, that would depend on many variables, including the plans of blustery Arizona congressman J.D. Hayworth, who also has made waves about possibly running against the incumbent.

If running for governor doesn't pan out for Romley, he says he may run for Hayworth's seat in Arizona's 5th District, where he and his wife Carol reside.

Then there's the possibility of a presidential appointment to a job in Washington, D.C., possibly working in veterans' affairs, a natural fit for the old Marine.

Romley says his wife Carol probably would rather not have to endure a rugged campaign, "though she's a trooper and we'll work it out, believe me. The future will work itself out."

Romley does have one plan for his immediate future.

He says that on his birthday next April 28, he'll retreat by himself to a room in his home. There, he'll try to open a box filled with things that have been awaiting him for 35 years -- since he was a strong young man fighting in Vietnam.

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Paul Rubin
Contact: Paul Rubin