Update: Bishop Thomas O'Brien died this morning, Sunday, August 26, at the age of 82.
It has been a tough summer for the Roman Catholic Church.
First was news from South America, where every bishop in Chile submitted his resignation as a result of covering up sexual abuse. Then news came out of Washington, D.C., where retired and now former Cardinal Theodore McCarrick was accused of sex crimes and payoffs to some of his victims. Finally, a state grand jury in Pennsylvania revealed that 300 priests in six Pennsylvania dioceses had sexually abused children and that bishops frequently covered up the crimes.
The news took many Catholics and former Catholics like me back to a dark, secretive place. Much of it had happened here 15 years ago.
The answers at the time seemed effective, but recent events raised the question of whether enough was done, by church leaders and by civil authorities in Phoenix. Files of a grand jury that looked into the scandal remain sealed. It is impossible to know if abuse continues, and impossible to believe that, as the bishops tell us, it largely has been curbed.
Culminating a year of dealing with the abuse scandal, Bishop Thomas O’Brien, who led the Catholic Diocese of Phoenix from 1981 to 2003, was forced from office after a series of horrid setbacks. It started with revelations of abusive priests, escalated into a grand jury investigation, and culminated with a man’s death.
Those were the early days of the scandal nationally and worldwide. It was too early to address the issues in a manner that would solve the problem.
Even near the end of his tenure, O’Brien reflexively defended the church over the needs of the abused.
At his annual luncheon for Catholic media in 2002, he and the diocese lawyer said they would not be informing abuse victims that their abuser had been released from prison. It would expose the church to unwanted legal action.
It was clear that O’Brien had ceded his diocesan oversight to attorneys, at least on abuse matters, at least a year before the grand jury probe wrapped up.
The toll the scandal took on the bishop was nothing near that extracted from dozens of abuse victims, but it was evident nevertheless. He appeared to be in poor health, physically and mentally, and he already was under strong pressure from Maricopa County Attorney Richard Romley, who had begun his investigation of abuse in the diocese a month earlier.
As we left the lunch that day, a media colleague said to me, “He won’t last another year,” referring to the bishop’s tenure.
Months of squabbling with the county attorney led eventually to an agreement that at the time, anyway, was the strongest ever accomplished by law enforcement. The diocese was on the hook for $700,000 for victim compensation and counseling, and to repay the investigative costs. O’Brien was forced to give up his control over his priests who had been accused of sex crimes, to acknowledge his role in protecting, sheltering, and speaking up for abusers, and to agree to fill several new positions aimed at giving accuser-victims a voice within diocese offices.
In exchange, O’Brien was spared from prosecution.
Michael Manning, an attorney who handled the investigation for the diocese for a time, said he believes a better solution was available, but the bishop wasn’t agreeable. It involved full disclosure and possibly O’Brien’s resignation.
Within weeks of the settlement, O’Brien drove over and fatally injured a pedestrian. He left the scene, was arrested within days, and resigned his position. He was convicted of a felony, the first American bishop ever so convicted. He was sentenced to community service, which he completed quietly and with a minimum of fuss. Since then, he has lived quietly in his central Phoenix home.
There are plenty of people, including attorneys involved in the matter and other diocese employees, who see a direct line between the O’Brien immunity agreement, the scandal’s effects, and the fatal accident that led to O’Brien’s resignation.
Far less clear is whether the solutions of the time accomplished much of anything.
The grand jury proceedings that produced the agreement have remained secret, unlike those in Pennsylvania and several other dioceses nationwide. Rick Romley, the county attorney who led the inquiry, acknowledges that the grand jury heard information that has not ever become public. But he adds that what did come out of the inquiry in a public forum was a fair summation of the issues in the diocese.
That did not mean that none of the information the grand jury considered had reached the public.
Phoenix New Times and the Arizona Republic, where I spent a few years on the religion beat, were on the job.
Once the abuse scandal broke wide open thanks to reporters at the Boston Globe in 2002, both local publications began to look into the story, publishing article after article.
By the time O’Brien signed the agreement that arose out of the grand juries, the public knew well how he had handled the scandal.
A few cases were turned over to law enforcement, but many others were disposed of quietly with confidentiality agreements, payoffs, and to the dismay of the victims and their families, moves of accused abusers to new assignments, where parishioners were never informed of what had happened.
In many cases, no information was provided to police.
More than once, O’Brien lost his temper with people, mostly parents, who brought abuse accusations to him.
It wasn’t until he was under scrutiny that O’Brien instituted any changes, some before the bishops instituted a zero-tolerance policy for abusive priests and some after.
The wall of secrecy within the diocese had begun to crack. The bishop scrambled to enact new anti-abuse policies, and to slowly identify the numerous priests who had worked in the diocese who had been, as the church puts it, “credibly accused” of sex crimes.
The individual stories were as sickening as any reported in recent weeks. Some were revealed by individual abuse victims, other through courthouse testimonies. Now, 15 years later, I still get queasy when reading about the evil deeds of men who on Sunday mornings would regale their congregations about sin, sexual and otherwise.
By the time Thomas Olmsted took over for O’Brien, in late 2003, the Phoenix Diocese had reported at least 30 priests, deacons, and other employees were involved in the scandal. It is impossible to know if the list was comprehensive. Even though the percentage of all priests was small, Phoenix for a time became the epicenter of the scandal. It is now known that many other places were far worse.
As time passed, interest waned. The religion beat was discontinued at the Republic, which provided the only ongoing coverage of the issues. People either returned to Sunday Mass, or they found other spiritual outlets.
But as one incident showed, public outrage was just a story away. When the Catholic Community Foundation, one of O’Brien’s creations, decided to present an award to the retired bishop in 2011, angry churchgoers succeeded in reversing the decision.
Olmsted, a conservative in personality and approach, has dealt with a handful of abuse cases by the book. But the book has been shown to be not good enough. The cases keep coming, here in Arizona, across the country, and internationally. The most recent diocese notification was in 2017, referring to a priest involved in incidents 40 years earlier.
The most recent accusation was lodged against Bishop Thomas O’Brien himself. While the diocese says it cannot confirm the credibility of the accusation, the case is pending in Superior Court.
Even as things quieted down in the Phoenix Diocese, several questions remain. Some remain because they cannot be answered, others because church leaders have not been forthcoming.
What is the diocese doing to address the problem, now that it has become clear that nothing done so far has been effective in keeping predators out of the priesthood? What can be done to penetrate the veil of secrecy in the church, and in numerous other organizations, religious and otherwise?
How should the church deal with priests who were suspended after allegations of abuse, maybe even criminally convicted? Some of these people were expelled from the priesthood, a few excommunicated for indirectly related reasons, but others remain priests who under church law may never conduct priestly duties in public but are left free to practice their dark evil on a new generation.
Should priests be allowed to have healthy sex lives? Should women be ordained? Should management of the church be turned over to lay people, leaving the religious ceremonies to the clergy?
Should every bishop submit his resignation, as happened in Chile, another location of the scandal that became public in the last year?
And finally, should the Maricopa County Grand Jury transcript be released?
Romley says he is confident that much, but not all, of the information discussed in the grand jury has become public. He acknowledges that it was one of his most difficult cases, in part because of his own Catholic faith.
But he also notes that, with 15 years passed, it is possible that not enough has been done.
Manning, the attorney hired by O’Brien to work with Romley, said the only solution would be complete openness, including the release of all files related to any priest accused of abuse.
Romley said the only way to release the transcript is to file a motion with the presiding judge of the Superior Court, with plenty of reasons for making it public: reasons like the welfare of victims who have not come forward, and the possible protection of future victims.
Olmsted also could take proactive steps. He could offer a comprehensive accounting of the costs of the scandal to the diocese. He could open the personnel files to public scrutiny, support extensions to statutes of limitations, even offer his resignation as a sign of penance.
The bishop has led numerous Masses of atonement for the scandal. He responded to the latest round of revelations by saying the right words, referring to “deep levels of sadness and anger,” “shameful and evil actions,” “great pain, confusion and dismay.”
He said he supports a proposal from the head of the bishops’ organization to investigate the McCarrick mess, to open new channels for complaints against bishops, and to come up with better ways to resolve future complaints. All of these would involve experts, lay people, and clergy.
He also asks his church members and employees to pray and fast.
Whether the first set of prescriptions will work remains to be seen. But by now, some 30 years after the first reports of priestly abuse were published, it is clear that the second set will accomplish nothing.
Michael Clancy is a former reporter at the Arizona Republic, where he covered religion for many years.
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