O'Brien has refused to discuss with New Times the Church's handling of pedophile priests, its response to sexual-abuse victims, charges of cover-ups of sex incidents, Harper's allegations or any other related topic.
The issues of homosexuality and pedophilia have rarely been openly discussed by Catholic clergy nationwide. But the issues have been dissected in national papers read by clergy and church officials.
The national Catholic press has written countless stories on pedophile priests. The stories have pointed out that homosexuality, a sexual preference, differs from pedophilia, which is a sexual disorder. But the stories have also pointed out that tolerating active sexuality by priests who've vowed lifelong celibacy may send a message that pedophilia will be tolerated, too.
Vern Bullough, author of Sexual Variation in Society and History, told the National Catholic Reporter two years ago: "I think there is a gay subculture within the Catholic clergy and probably a rationalization among some priests that having sex with young boys is not the heinous sin that others might think."
Some current and former local priests say pedophile priests justify their acts by considering voyeurism, fondling and masturbating a child "less of a sin" than intercourse.
The cases of Father John, Father Joe, and Father George reveal similar patterns of rationalizing and denial.
Father John, who in 1984 confessed he'd been abusing the same boy for two years, spent a year in jail, underwent extensive counseling and eventually left the priesthood.
Father Joe was luckier. When the diocese interceded on his behalf in 1986, he didn't have to go to jail despite the fact that he admitted in court papers that he'd molested a thirteen-year-old. At the time of Father John's arrest, sexual conduct with a minor carried a mandatory prison sentence of no less than five years. But in 1985, before Father Joe's case went to trial, the Arizona State Legislature approved harsher mandatory prison sentences for sex crimes against children. Under the new law, Father Joe could have been sent to prison for 25 years for his crime. Bishop O'Brien, who told police he'd had a "confessional" conversation with the priest, refused to talk to police about the case, according to court records.
However, the bishop and his former right-hand man, then-Chancellor James McFadden, would speak up when it was in Father Joe's best interest: They asked the court for a lenient sentence. Father Joe was not sent to jail. Superior Court Judge Michael Ryan put the priest on three years' probation and told him to stay away from little boys. The embarrassed cleric, who said he "just wanted to put all this behind me," transferred to a Midwestern diocese, where he is a priest-chaplain in a hospital. If Father Joe complies with the terms of his probation, he will have no criminal record. The case was never publicly acknowledged by the bishop.
Father George, the rowdy nudist priest, eventually confessed to molesting three young boys at his desert hideaway and to molesting as many as nineteen boys in his life. Two of Father George's victims have filed a negligence lawsuit against the priest and the diocese. The bishop, dozens of parishioners and local priests wrote the judge and asked for leniency.
The bishop said Father George was showing remorse for his actions and noted the priest had done many good things for his parish. Father George could have spent the rest of his life in prison for the sexual abuse of three boys. But instead he is spending a year in jail and must serve a lifetime probation. One of the terms of his probation is that he must never spend unsupervised time with children.
The sentence sparked outrage from some people as being too lenient. The irony is that Judge Robert Hertzberg, by restricting Father George's access to minors and insisting on lifetime probation, pronounced the harshest sentence a pedophile priest in Phoenix has received in the past five years.
Father George refused repeated requests by New Times for interviews, and the two other men could not be found for comment. But the incidents--and the diocese's response to them--are etched in public records and in the memories of the priests and parishioners.
"These priests are in the confessional or saying Mass after they do all this garbage, and that gives them a sense that they are above morality."
The diocese was alerted four years before his arrest that Father John may have been sexually involved with a youth.