A week before Bishop Thomas J. O'Brien admitted that yet another Catholic priest in Phoenix is being investigated for sexually abusing children, the bishop issued the local Diocese's first policy on how to handle such allegations.

In a June 22 cover letter that accompanied the ten-page document, the bishop, who heads the Roman Catholic Church in central and northern Arizona, ordered all priests to attend an October 3 meeting at Saint Timothy Church in Mesa to be briefed on the policy and to hear experts lecture them on physical and sexual abuse of minors.

"These issues are extremely serious and are of great concern to all of us," the bishop wrote. "We must do everything we can to become knowledgeable on these subjects, and as priests, we must act in a responsible way as we sensitively minister to our people."

The policy borrows heavily from a 1985 document secretly issued by the Catholic Church to all American bishops in the wake of revelations that pedophilia in the priesthood was a national problem. Four local priests have been accused of molesting children in recent years; one, Father George Bredemann, is finishing a jail term for his offenses.

Last year, in the well-publicized Bredemann case, O'Brien was criticized for being more sympathetic to Bredemann than he was to the victims. The bishop also took flak for not having a diocesan policy on pedophilia.

The policy just issued by O'Brien includes a specific warning to local priests that they must not excessively "tickle" or have "horseplay" with kids, or invite unchaperoned children to visit the rectory or venture out on field trips where a priest and child would be alone.

The Diocese "is deeply committed to addressing the issue of the abuse of minors," O'Brien's policy says, adding that "in recent years there has been an alarming increase in our society in reported cases of sexual and physical abuse."

The document details the legal, ecclesiastical and financial consequences to the priest, but devotes less space to the Diocese's pastoral and moral obligations to the victims and parishioners. It also appears to protect diocesan priests and the bishop by forbidding them to hear the confession of a priest accused of molesting children. State law requires priests to reveal what minors say to them during confession, but adults' confessions are considered confidential, says Terry Jennings, a deputy Maricopa County attorney.

O'Brien's policy makes it difficult for people to remain anonymous when they tell Diocese officials about suspected pedophilia by priests. When an informant refuses to give his name and address, the Diocese probably won't investigate the allegation, according to the policy.

Marge Injasoulian, spokeswoman for the Diocese, says the bishop will not comment on the new policy. Injasoulian says another Diocese priest who is familiar with the policy and normally would be available for comment is out of town.

On June 29, Bishop O'Brien publicly admitted that Father Mark Lehman, 28, a teacher at Saint Thomas the Apostle School and an associate pastor of the parish, was placed on a leave of absence this spring after two seventh-grade girls at the school charged that the priest had molested them. Lehman's case has been investigated by Phoenix police. Jennings says the County Attorney's Office hasn't yet decided whether to prosecute Lehman.

Lehman is the fourth Diocese priest in six years to be placed on a paid leave of absence for molesting children. Three priests, Father John Giandelone, Father Joe Lessard, and Father George Bredemann, admitted to police that they'd molested boys. The three received extremely light sentences in Maricopa County Superior Court--the maximum sentence was a year in jail--after O'Brien wrote letters to judges on their behalf.

Bredemann is currently serving the tail end of a year's jail sentence for molesting three boys who had been entrusted to him for counseling because they'd been molested before. Giandelone voluntarily resigned from the priesthood. Lessard now is a priest in the Midwest.

The bishop's policy says that sexual abuse by priests "is not tolerated" by the Diocese and will be reported to state authorities, as required by state law. It notes that people who fail to report incidents of child molesting are guilty of breaking the law themselves.

But there is much in the policy that appears to protect the Church. For instance, there's the business about not allowing offending priests to make confessions to Diocese clerics. In another section, the policy notes that the only people who are exempt from reporting child-molesting incidents to the state are attorneys whose conversations with clients are by law allowed to be secret.

That may be why the bishop has chosen an attorney to head up an "emergency-response team" to investigate allegations of pedophilia in the Diocese. The attorney is joined by a priest and a health-care professional, who are to care for the victims and their families.

Victims and their families are to be offered pastoral and professional counseling, as well as a medical evaluation at the Diocese's expense, the policy says. But the Diocese is a vague on how to treat parishioners who've just found out their beloved priest is a child molester. "An allegation of the abuse of a minor by a priest can have a profound effect on his place of ministry," the policy says. "The Diocese attempts to pastorally address the pain and confusion of the parish or institution to which the accused priest is assigned."

The policy is unclear on just how much help the accused priest will get from the Diocese. In one section, it says the offending cleric must pay legal fees. But elsewhere in the policy, the bishop says the Diocese will decide case-by-case whether to pay legal fees.

In any case, the Diocese will pay for the priest's treatment. So far, three pedophile priests from Phoenix have been sent, at the Diocese's expense, for treatment in a special Church-run center in Jemez Springs, New Mexico.

After treatment and criminal trials are completed, the Diocese has several options on how to deal with priests found guilty of molesting: A pedophile may remain a Diocese priest if he's closely supervised. Or he may resign from the Diocese. Or he may get kicked out of the priesthood during a Church trial.

This makes Father George Bredemann's future a bit unclear. Because Bredemann, his attorney Emmet Ronan, the bishop and Diocese spokeswoman Injasoulian refuse to comment on his case, no one knows for sure whether he'll be working once again in the Diocese or pounding the pavement looking for a job when he's released later this summer.

KEEP PHOENIX NEW TIMES FREE... Since we started Phoenix New Times, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Phoenix, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Terry Greene