No Good Deed

Only one thing has become absolutely clear as the pedo-priest scandal reaches its first anniversary in Phoenix:

Bishop Thomas O'Brien cares about nothing other than keeping his pointy hat.

Last April, as stories of pedophile priests erupted around the country, I wrote a column about O'Brien's own immoral 20-year history of protecting priests who molested children. I argued then that his record of stonewalling police and victims in the sordid cases of George Bredemann, John Giandelone and Joseph Lessard was already enough filth to prompt his ouster as bishop.

Then came the Patrick Colleary case, in which it became clear that O'Brien had fought to silence the parents of Mark Kennedy when they came to him to complain that Colleary had abused their son.

Once the county attorney began investigating the Phoenix Diocese and its problem priests, O'Brien promised to be forthcoming with all diocesan documents regarding sexual abuse by priests.

At that time, O'Brien had handed over management of the crisis to prominent attorney Michael Manning, the famed slayer of such dragons as Charles Keating, Fife Symington and Joe Arpaio. Manning convinced O'Brien that the best legal strategy for a church leader was imagine this to be honest, open and moral.

In time, though, O'Brien stopped listening to Manning and began listening once again to his old Rasputin, Diocese general counsel Greg Leisse, the arrogant slimeball architect of much of the Diocese's stonewalling policies. Under Leisse's advice, O'Brien backed out on his promise and spent much of the second part of 2002 trying to block prosecutors' access to a cache of critical diocesan documents.

Which all leads to the latest church intrigue.

Two weeks ago, a manila envelope with no return address ended up on the desk of Arizona Republic reporter Joe Reaves, who, unlike his predecessors on the Diocese beat, is actually doing some strong reporting on the issue.

Inside the envelope was a copy of a confidential letter to County Attorney Rick Romley from Manning and Ernest Calderon, a prominent Catholic attorney who is president of the State Bar of Arizona.

Manning and Calderon sent the letter to Romley on December 11, three days after Manning had stepped down as O'Brien's attorney because of deep frustration with the stonewalling tactics of Leisse and O'Brien.

In the letter, Manning and Calderon asked for a meeting with Romley to discuss what they saw as a possible solution to the Diocese scandal. Both attorneys made it very clear in the letter that they neither represented O'Brien nor would be willing to discuss any privileged information.

They were speaking only as concerned Catholics who badly wanted their church to be able to move on.

In the meeting with Romley and three members of his staff, Manning and Calderon pitched a deal: What if O'Brien would agree to relinquish his administrative powers and agree to fully cooperate with prosecutors? Would prosecutors be willing to cease their pursuit of criminal obstruction charges against the bishop and the Diocese?

It was simply a discussion of "what ifs."

Romley was somewhat interested in the offer.

When Manning pitched the idea to the bishop, though, the bishop was irate. So was Leisse.

How dare a couple of lowly parishioners suggest a solution to a problem devastating their church?

Leisse, who by that time hated Manning, fired off an angry letter a week later to the general partners of both Manning's and Calderon's law firms.

This letter also showed up at the Republic a few days after Manning and Calderon's letter. It also was sent anonymously.

In that letter, Leisse ranted that Manning and Calderon's offer violated the Diocese and O'Brien's "free exercise of religion."

(While I have heard Leisse described numerous times by different camps as a "complete asshole," I have never once heard him described as a good lawyer.)

Leisse ended his hissy fit with this:

"The Diocese is undertaking a more complete analysis of the legal and ethical implications of the Dec. 11 meeting. Please be advised that any contact or comment by Mr. Manning or other representative of Stinson Morrison Hecker LLP to the Maricopa County Attorney's Office or any public comment of any kind by such persons with respect to these matters is not authorized and is to cease immediately."

The threat of a lawsuit and a gag order all wrapped into one.

According to my sources within the Diocese, Leisse apparently was quite impressed with himself for lambasting Manning for his act of conscience.

Which brings us to the most interesting question in this latest imbroglio:

Who sent the letters to the Republic reporter?

Here's my guess, which is informed by sources within the County Attorney's Office, the Diocese and several area law firms:

The first letter probably came from diocesan officials below O'Brien who believe it is time for him to go. They know he handled the cases poorly, but more important to them, they know the church can't move on with him still in place. They have spent the last year listening to frustrated parishioners throughout the Valley and decided that releasing the letter might spark parishioners to push for a solution like the one Manning and Calderon outlined.

Two other theories floating around: Prosecutors leaked it to get a feeling for public sentiment regarding such a deal and to show that even O'Brien's old attorney felt that O'Brien needed to go.

Or, Manning leaked it to float the possibility of O'Brien's departure to a wider audience of concerned Catholics.

The second document, in which Leisse blasts Manning and Calderon, likely was released by Leisse or a close associate who thought it would embarrass Manning.

Regardless of this diocesan Deep Throat's identity, the documents further illustrate a key fact in this scandal.

O'Brien and Leisse are still unrepentant thugs who are willing to further damage the church to keep their cushy jobs.

Which, considering that both represent a moral authority, means they are absolutely unfit to continue in their positions.

If the last year has taught us anything positive, it is that the Diocese of Phoenix is not a den of perverts. The number of confirmed cases, indeed, even the number of rumored cases, represents only a small percentage of the priests working in the Valley and a small percentage when compared to the number of pedophile priests in dioceses such as Los Angeles and Boston.

The only real scandal is how O'Brien and his henchmen chose to handle, and continue to handle, the cases that did exist.

Manning and Calderon are right. County Attorney Rick Romley is right. And thousands of frustrated Catholics are right.

It's time for Bishop O'Brien to step down and let the real healing begin.

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Robert Nelson