Beat It!

Father Patrick Colleary has done his time. And we can only hope that the county attorney finds enough evidence to eventually force Bishop Thomas O'Brien to do his.

Colleary was freed from the Madison Street Jail last week after charges of sexual abuse against him were dropped by County Attorney Rick Romley. Colleary had been held for a month without bail because prosecutors considered him a flight risk.

Colleary's indictments for molesting Mark Kennedy in 1978 rested precariously on a quirk in the state's statute of limitations law. At issue: Were the accusations of sexual abuse brought by the Kennedy family back in late 1978 investigated at that time by police?

If so, under state law, prosecutors had seven years from the date of the incident to file charges. If so, no charges could be filed after 1985.

However, until last week, prosecutors found no evidence that any Valley law enforcement agency had shown the necessary "due diligence" in investigating the accusations. Last summer, prosecutors asked all law enforcement agencies that might have had jurisdiction in the case to dig deep into their archives for any police report related to the incident. I also made a public records request to Tempe and Chandler police and to the Maricopa County Sheriff's Office.

Nothing was found.

We all went looking because Mark Kennedy's mother, Doris, remembered talking to police officers at the time. But she couldn't remember the agency. Further complicating things: At the time, the Kennedys lived in an area north of Chandler that bordered city and county land. And the Kennedys attended church in Tempe.

Doris Kennedy remembered talking to police about an incident in her home in which her son Dominic walked in when Father Colleary was sexually molesting Mark, then 10 years old.

Last spring, Mark, now 35, began remembering two other times during which he says he was molested by Colleary at Holy Spirit Catholic Church in late 1978. Those two incidences, which seemingly had never been brought to light, were the key to the county attorney's attempts to circumvent the statute of limitations in the case.

After Colleary was arrested, Romley again went to the sheriff's office and other agencies asking them to dig one more time for any evidence of the early 1979 police investigation that Doris Kennedy remembers. Romley and his prosecutors wanted to make absolutely sure such a report didn't exist.

Records management personnel around the city complied. And early last week, sheriff's office personnel laboriously scanned thousands of decades-old files and found the report.

Although their report was given to the grand jury, and thus sealed from the public, it is clear that prosecutors saw evidence that all three Kennedy accusations had been given enough attention in early 1979 to block Colleary from prosecution now.

This is not to say that the earlier investigation was thorough. Only that it was thorough enough to show that authorities had exercised due diligence in regard to the statute of limitations.

Finding the report in the sheriff's office's grossly antiquated and fragmented filing system was no easy task. Sheriff's personnel did good work. And it was refreshing to see the sheriff's office come forward immediately with a piece of evidence that could have made the department look bad (considering that Sheriff Joe Arpaio had been asked if such evidence existed last summer).

Arpaio, as readers of this column know, has a history of disappearing information that would make his office look bad.

And Romley did what he had to do. He had to turn Colleary loose.

But the other guilty party in this bizarre affair is Bishop Thomas O'Brien.

The day before the police report was found by the sheriff's office, prosecutors submitted into court records a memo written to O'Brien in 1996 by Michael Diskin, one of his top administrators.

The memo is just one more smoking gun exposing O'Brien's cover-up of problem priests.

In the memo, Diskin, not usually one to question ecclesiastical authority, clearly states his opinion that Colleary is a liar and an unrepentant predator.

Referring to interviews with a doctor and to a polygraph test taken by Colleary about molestation accusations, Diskin told O'Brien:

"It is obvious that Fr. Colleary was not truthful with Dr. Earle. That raises serious questions for me. I would have more confidence in him if he had come clean and I knew that he was dealing with any challenge to his oath of celibacy."

The memo discusses abhorrent behavior by Colleary beyond the alleged molestation of Kennedy.

"We know that Fr. Colleary had sexual relations with Sharon Roy in 1977, leading to the birth of a daughter in 1978. He began having sexual relations with Mrs. Lecheler in 1978. In 1993, we have a report from Dr. Earle. Fr. Colleary underwent a polygraph test relating to allegations of sexual molestation of a minor."

Speaking from her home in Texas, Kathleen Lecheler expressed anger that Colleary got off on a technicality. She repeated something she had told me in an interview last summer, something that supports Diskin's fears in 1996.

"I remember having dinner with [Colleary] after the death of this little boy we both knew," she says. "He wasn't talking about the boy, though." She says Colleary was upset because he said he had been accused of "pulling down a little boy's zipper" and that he had to take a polygraph test.

"But you know you can pass those things,'" she said he told her.

That Colleary won't be prosecuted has caused Lecheler to push for criminal charges for the pain he has caused her to suffer.

"He has hurt so many people that he needs to pay," she says.

Twenty-five years ago, when she was 17, Lecheler went to Colleary for counseling after the death of her brother. As he was comforting her, she recalls, the priest began groping her body.

"I remember one time he said: Put your head on my lap,'" she says. "As I was laying there, he began rubbing my chest."

Colleary then told Lecheler's parents that, in order to heal, she needed to go on church retreats. Four years later, Colleary began a three-year sexual relationship with Lecheler.

"I take responsibility for what I did when I was 21," she says. "But I was still clearly groomed when I was much younger for what happened."

Still, Colleary probably won't spend more time in jail for his transgressions. The statute of limitations issues in any of the cases against Colleary may be insurmountable.

But whether Patrick Colleary spends another day in the slammer, he is still an unrepentant dirtbag. And in 1996, the Diskin memo proves, Bishop Thomas O'Brien clearly knew just that.

So what did the bishop do?

He relocated Colleary to a Scottsdale church with a large elementary school in 1998 without telling parishioners about Colleary's past. O'Brien only put Colleary on administrative leave late last spring after the Kennedy accusations became public.

O'Brien had known about those allegations for 23 years.

Which is just one of many reasons Rick Romley has sworn to break through O'Brien's stonewalling and discover the bishop's true role in covering up for problem priests. The county attorney has emphasized that he will file criminal charges against O'Brien if evidence warrants it.

He has a tough battle ahead. Especially now that the bishop's star attorney, Mike Manning, has removed himself from the case (reportedly because the diocese has stonewalled the county attorney's efforts to obtain potentially damning documents).

It's an understatement to say that, over the past year, O'Brien has proven himself unable to give up the church's medieval mindset regarding sexual abuse of minors by his priests. Instead of helping the church to heal by being open and empathetic, he has chosen to cover up for criminals.

When Thomas O'Brien says he loves the church, I believe him. He loves the institution so much that he has let pedo-priests abuse the innocent parishioners they have vowed to serve. The only thing left for O'Brien to do is resign. He owes it to the victims of those he's protected.

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Robert Nelson