Silent Witness

From guest editorials in the Sunday paper to letters read to congregations across the Valley, Bishop Thomas O'Brien has been on an aggressive campaign to sell himself as a longtime progressive leader in the fight against pedophile priests.

In reality, O'Brien should instead be confessing to nearly 20 years of outrageous stonewalling.

"For us, he's been nothing but an obstructionist," a Maricopa County Attorney's Office official told me.

For victims, too, he's been nothing but an obstructionist.

And for the media, he continues to be nothing but an obstructionist. When this newspaper revealed rampant sexual abuse a decade ago, he stonewalled. Today, when the newspaper asked for proof that things had changed, he stonewalled, refusing to answer even the most basic questions.

Other dioceses with troubled pasts have turned over their records to law enforcement, records going back 40 years.

O'Brien has done nothing but ask the public to trust him.

Here is the record of that man who insists that we have faith in him. It is every bit as deplorable as the revelations emerging from dioceses back East.

In October of 1989, New Times writer Terry Greene Sterling broke the story of the cover-up and gross mishandling of three pedophile priests in the Phoenix Diocese.

There was Father George Bredemann, who liked to take parish boys to a ramshackle hut in the desert for weekends of naked frolicking. Father George is serving a 45-year sentence for his crimes.

There was Father John Maurice Giandelone, who was caught giving oral sex to a 15-year-old boy, a boy with whom Giandelone admitted having a two-year sexual relationship that included oral sex in the rectory moments before Mass.

There was Father Joseph Marcel Lessard, who was caught giving oral sex to a 13-year-old boy in the boy's home. Father Joe had told the boy's parents he just wanted to go check out the kid's waterbed.

In all three cases, O'Brien, the bishop in Phoenix since 1982, downplayed early warnings about the priests, then used lawyerly obfuscation and evasion tactics to squelch the flow of information to parishioners, prosecutors and the press. As the 1990s wore on, O'Brien and his attorneys fought for confidentiality agreements around civil settlements in the cases.

At the same time, O'Brien savaged the media, opposing attorneys and "the unfaithful" for pursuing the issue as he wrote treacly letters begging judges for leniency for his molesters.

In each case, O'Brien argued that the priests should serve no prison time. In the case of Father Bredemann, O'Brien argued that Bredemann was "showing remorse for his actions" and had done "many good things for his parish."

And as some of Arizona's most prominent Catholic laypeople began pushing for reform, O'Brien kept providing cover for child molesters.

In 1993, Father Alanson "Lan" Sherwood was sentenced to 10 years in prison for molesting boys.

O'Brien had known since 1986 that Sherwood was trouble. That year, police caught Sherwood masturbating at Pleasure World, an adult bookstore.

Had O'Brien checked, he would have also discovered Sherwood had been arrested two years earlier on the same offense.

Instead of defrocking the priest or placing him in counseling, O'Brien sent Sherwood to St. Benedict's Church in Chandler, where Sherwood oversaw youth programs and altar boys.

While he was there, he molested 22 boys.

Sherwood's defenders in the Diocese explained that the 22 kids weren't members of the parish. They were just street kids strapped for cash who Sherwood picked up when he couldn't find a suitable adult male for oral sex.

During the investigation of Sherwood, diaries and videotapes were discovered in which he documented 1,840 homosexual liaisons between 1984 and 1993, or about one every two days. The priest documented that he spent $14,000 on his sexual escapades.

Impressive figures for a celibate man.

As Rome burned, O'Brien continued to lay blame on prosecutors and the media.

Lucky for O'Brien, his flock fought for accountability. In 1995, after 14 months of development, a 22-member church commission made up of many of Arizona's top minds put together one of the best and strongest diocesan policies on sexual misconduct in the country.

At least it reads that way. As has always been the case with O'Brien, he refuses to reveal any meaningful details.

I talked to a prominent Phoenix attorney and Phoenix doctor who both sit on Diocesan sexual misconduct boards. The boards field accusations and, through interviews with the accusers and the accused, determine if the allegations have merit. If the charges are deemed credible, police are contacted, the bishop is contacted and a rigid investigatory protocol begins.

Whether the committee deems the allegations legitimate or not, those making the accusations are advised to contact police.

Both the doctor and attorney helped shape the Diocesan sexual misconduct policy and both have proven, in my experience with them on public policy issues, that they are people who won't settle for cheap rhetoric from the bishop.

"It did change seven years ago," says the doctor, who wished not to be identified. "Problem priests are genuinely being pursued in a very intellectually honest way. The mood of the Diocese does seem to have moved from protecting priests to protecting parishioners."

"The initial process has been taken out of the hands of the bishop," the attorney says. "It's no longer a partisan process."

In recent months, the attorney points out, risk management specialists for Catholic dioceses in the United States have been recommending the Phoenix sexual misconduct policy as a model to be followed in troubled dioceses across the country.

Which could mean the Phoenix policy really works to protect children. It could mean, as the attorney suggests, that the risk management people decided the Phoenix Diocese would be hard to sue for negligence because a jury would see it clearly is working to report, not hide, incidences of abuse.

Or, it could just mean the Phoenix policy works more to protect churches from shelling out cash when children seek fair compensation for the abuse they suffered.

Neither of my sources could give a number of allegations handled by the Diocese's citizen committees.

So I called Phoenix police. They said they never had a case of a priest molestation referred to them by the Diocese.

Neither had Glendale, Mesa nor Tempe. (Chandler and Scottsdale police had not answered my request by press time.)

Amazingly, spokespeople for all three agencies say they haven't received any credible allegations of a molesting priest in the years since the policy was enacted.

Also, no cases of a priest pedophile have been turned over to the Maricopa County Attorney's Office for prosecution since the policy was enacted.

Either Phoenix and other Valley cities have no priest pedophiles, or something in the system isn't working. I called Bishop O'Brien's office with a list of questions and hopes of clarification.

Last Tuesday, I sent two pages of questions regarding the effectiveness of the policy to Marge Injasoulian, the Diocese's longtime communications director. They were basic questions to substantiate the fundamental effectiveness of the diocesan policy:

How many priests have been reported to the church's sexual misconduct investigative committee? How many investigations were deemed to hold merit? What were the punishments?

How many times were police or county prosecutors contacted in cases? In how many cases were parishioners informed about the investigation?

Where are the four Phoenix Diocese priests who were convicted of, or admitted to, child molestation in the 1980s and early 1990s?

Has the Diocese ever maintained records of priests who have sexually molested children? If so, has that list been turned over to county prosecutors?

(An official in the County Attorney's Office says they've received no such list from the Diocese.)

Were there other priests in the past who were secretly reprimanded or treated for child molestations who were transferred from the Phoenix Diocese after the offense? If so, what are their names?

Were there other priests who were moved to the Phoenix Diocese after treatment or reprimand for child molestation? Were parishioners warned?

I received this faxed response a day later:

"I received your two-page fax and want to thank you for the time you took in writing it," Injasoulian wrote.

"I need to tell you, however, that our policy for the past 10 years has been -- we don't give interviews to the New Times. This is based on the experiences we have had in the past."

Basically, O'Brien and his flack can heap immediate forgiveness on child molesters, but hold ancient grudges against those who alerted Arizonans about those child molesters and the church policies that kept them molesting.

The Phoenix Diocese may indeed have a miracle on its hands. From all indications, there haven't been any credible accusations of a pedophile priest in the Valley since the firestorm of the late 1980s and early '90s.

Too bad we can't know for sure. Because sitting on top of any proof is the same old unrepentant obstructionist, Bishop Thomas O'Brien.

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Robert Nelson