The Divine Sociopath

I am terminally ill with rectal cancer. (Go ahead, make a crude joke. I'd have cracked wise if the tables were reversed. If only.)

The pain is unimaginable in a place that should never hurt.

The hospice attendants have given me control of the morphine drip, something I longed for all of my life when I might have enjoyed it. But now that I have it, I realize you only get the dope joystick when your prognosis is hopeless.

Worse than the pain are my thoughts. What awaits me on the other side? I don't want to leave. I want to spend a few beery hours watching one of Jerry Colangelo's teams, even the Phoenix Suns. Am I on the verge of unending stillness?

What if there is judgment day? All the women I've betrayed, all the children I've slapped, all the dogs I've kicked, all the church collection plates I've stiffed?

I know my pending death is not unique. Everyone croaks. Like Beckett's Murphy said, "The sun shone, having no alternative, on the nothing new."

That's no comfort when you have rectal cancer and only hours, not days, of the nothing new.

I am under the blackest depression.

What's that?

Out of the corner of my eye, I notice a short, uncomfortable man shuffling toward my side.

Sweet Baby Jesus, it is Bishop Thomas J. O'Brien.


Where is the morphine button?

Who let this crusader for child-molesting priests, this divine sociopath, approach my bedside?

Someone stop his mumbling. Oh, this is my ex-wife's dark prank, calling the bishop's hot line.*

Who is responsible for ushering this socially dysfunctional pervert into what's left of my life? Who created this sick parody of comfort for the dying?

I'll tell you who is responsible: Judge Stephen A. Gerst.

Judge Gerst got the facts wrong, and turned a blind eye to the bishop's criminal complicity while sparing O'Brien any jail time when he sentenced the prince of the church.

O'Brien's supporters showed up at the sentencing wearing buttons with his picture and the words: "I Love My Bishop"; but no one loved this sinner as much as his judge.

Convicted by a jury of felony hit-and-run after killing a man and fleeing the scene, Bishop O'Brien was sentenced to 1,000 hours of community service. The judge ordered him to visit the terminally ill and seriously injured.

Gerst belabored the court with his picayune analysis of 99 other hit-and-run cases and the sentences those defendants received in an unusual attempt to justify his leniency.

Yet the judge got wrong the one case he cited in his Power-Point presentation as most similar to Bishop O'Brien's.

The morning newspaper mentioned the same case in its editorial endorsing leniency for Bishop O'Brien and got it wrong, too.

The judge made two monumental mistakes when he used the Lila Swanson case to explain why he wasn't jailing the pedophile-protecting bishop.

The 74-year-old Swanson struck two boys on a bicycle on October 11, 2002. She killed one child, seriously injured the other and proceeded to a casino to spend the night gambling. Like the bishop, she claimed she did not see what she had hit.

Unlike the bishop, Swanson spared the system a trial and pleaded no contest.

Gerst claimed Lila Swanson received no jail time.

And that is flat wrong.

Prosecutors and defense attorneys in the Swanson case interviewed for this story concur that the woman was sentenced to six months in jail.

Long after the initial sentence, the probation officer in the case interceded with the court in a successful effort to defer the jail time. Swanson was taking care of her mother, a sickly 94-year-old with nowhere to turn, a rationale that certainly has nothing to do with the bishop.

It is hard to view Judge Gerst's next mistake regarding the Swanson case as anything other than willful pandering to the powerful.

Lila Swanson had no prior involvement with the criminal justice system, a factor all judges consider before sentencing. Despite a spotless record, the elderly lady was still given six months.

Bishop O'Brien, on the other hand, was the target of a grand jury investigation in the sex-abuse scandals shortly before his hit-and-run.

The judge chose to ignore Bishop O'Brien's critical role in the criminal conspiracy that shielded child-abusing priests from prosecution.

Facing a felony indictment for obstruction of justice, Bishop O'Brien signed a novel agreement with County Attorney Rick Romley to avoid prosecution. This unprecedented document was signed just two weeks before the fatal hit-and-run. In return for immunity, O'Brien relinquished control of sexual-abuse investigations within the Phoenix diocese. Romley dictated a series of reforms the church was forced to adopt.

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Michael Lacey
Contact: Michael Lacey