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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...
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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.

Bishop O'Brien also admitted, in writing, that he was guilty.

And yet Judge Gerst claimed, in the arcane language of the court, that O'Brien, like Lila Swanson, had had no previous contact with the criminal justice system, and therefore no jail time was called for in this case.

In his office following the sentence, prosecutor Romley expressed outrage at Gerst's wrist-slap of the bishop.

"O'Brien was the target of the criminal justice system, and that is admissible and relevant," said Romley. "The bishop is no different than someone we use as an informant. We say, we won't file if you work for us. But if the informant gets dirty again, commits another crime, the previous bad behavior is on the record."

In the county attorney's eyes, he agreed not to file on Bishop O'Brien, but when the cleric was convicted of felony hit-and-run, he was dirty again, which should have put his role in the obstruction of justice back on the record.

Furthermore, any reasonable examination of O'Brien's sordid record in the child-abuse tragedy shows that he did much more than persuade devout Catholics not to report abuse, much more than transfer molesters into unsuspecting parishes.

Bishop O'Brien also actively deceived the courts in 1985 regarding the sexual predation of one of the bishop's most notorious priests, Father John Giandelone. The bishop hid from a judge about to sentence this pedophile the fact that the priest had already molested another child in an earlier case O'Brien personally investigated.

While insisting to the court that he, the bishop, saw reason to believe Giandelone would never offend again, O'Brien knew full well that this priest was already a repeat offender.

So O'Brien persuaded the court to give the molester a very light sentence: working in the church library.

Bishop O'Brien, unlike Lila Swanson, had extensive contact with the criminal justice system. He was the target of a grand jury investigation, he signed a shocking consent decree, admitted guilt and relinquished authority. He was also an active participant in a fraud committed upon the judiciary in the sentencing of one of his predators.

By the time Judge Gerst bungled the sentencing, fate had already conspired to keep a critical witness out of the courtroom. Prosecutors were prepared to bring the smoking gun in the child-abuse agreement into the hit-and-run pre-sentencing hearing.

Once convicted of felony hit-and-run, Bishop O'Brien faced a pre-sentencing hearing where prosecutors and defense attorneys presented factors that aggravate or mitigate the charge. This is where the county attorney intended to present Father Joe Ladensack.

County Attorney Rick Romley was able to get the signed confession from the bishop because the prosecutor had a stunning witness to the pedophilia scandal. A former priest claimed O'Brien ordered him to break the law to protect Father Giandelone, a deviant, molesting cleric. It was this evidence that Romley threatened to take to the grand jury unless the bishop admitted his guilt and relinquished control.

Father Joe Ladensack, once part of the bishop's inner circle, was driven out of the church by O'Brien, given 24 hours to clear out of the rectory. His interview with authorities marked the beginning of the end for the bishop.

Now happily married, Ladensack was scheduled to testify in the sentencing phase of O'Brien's hit-and-run case, but a death in his family prevented his appearance.

His transcribed interview with authorities, however, presents a chilling view of the child-molestation conspiracy that Bishop O'Brien presided over.

The oldest of nine children, Ladensack was a graduate of Brophy Prep and Arizona State University. He distinguished himself in Vietnam as a war hero earning two Silver Stars, six Bronze Stars and a Purple Heart.

The war changed Joe Ladensack, and after leaving the Army, he dedicated his life to God, entered the seminary and earned a pair of master's degrees in religious studies. Within two years, he was asked by then-bishop James Rausch to become the Director of Religious Education in Phoenix.

Bishop Rausch was not merely the leader of the diocese. He was recognized as an intellectual caught up in worldly affairs. The State Department had once given the bishop and his mentor, Cardinal Joseph Bernadine, vestments in which an enormous stash of money had been sewn into the lining. Rausch then smuggled the money into communist Poland, where the church used the funds to finance the Solidarity Movement. Father Ladensack, still a young man, found it a heady experience to be on Rausch's staff, and within two years, was promoted again to Vicar for Christian Formation.

Father Ladensack presided over all of the educational arms of the church as well as the development of vocations.

Almost from the beginning -- in the early '80s -- he attempted to set reforms in place. He felt that too often men were being admitted into the priesthood with questionable judgment, habits and morals.

Then, as now, the Catholic clergy in Phoenix was markedly gay.

Kim Sue Lia Perkes, an avowed lesbian, was Bishop O'Brien's last press liaison. She joked in a recent interview that, "If it weren't for the gay clergy in Phoenix, there wouldn't be any clergy in Phoenix."

Ladensack took steps to try to impose controls in 1980 that would help ensure that seminarians -- whatever their sexual orientation -- were mature candidates for the priesthood.

"Instead of just accepting someone as a seminarian, sending him to the seminary and then ordaining him," Ladensack told investigators, "I began to set up a system where we had to look at records, we had screening lay boards, interview them at various steps and then we had a final board before they were ordained."

He immediately met resistance from another priest, Father Jack Cunningham, according to the prosecutor's transcript.

Cunningham, who worked under Ladensack, oversaw seminary admissions and drew attention to himself almost immediately. He was called on the carpet for taking a group of seminarians out to dinner and leaving a $500 tip.

Cunningham's explanation for the generosity did not sit well with Ladensack.

"He said, 'Yeah, [the waiter] gave us excellent service and he was real cute, too.' And he gave me sort of a mischievous wink."

According to Ladensack, Father Cunningham recruited seminarians who had been rejected elsewhere, or who had attended more than one seminary.

When Cunningham continued to ignore the reforms, Ladensack relieved him of his responsibilities and assigned him to a parish.

In addition to the young seminarians, Ladensack was also concerned with the spiritual maturity of the priests already in the diocese. He brought to Phoenix a Trappist monk, Reverend Vince Dwyer, who'd created the Ministry to Priests program.

Reverend Dwyer, who'd put counseling packages together for other dioceses across America, conducted psychological profiles through extensive questionnaires local priests filled out during an annual retreat.

Ladensack was not prepared for the results.

"Vince Dwyer met with us and said, 'This is the worst presbyterate I've ever seen,'" remembered Ladensack. "'You have got some major, major problems. Major problems.' He says, 'When I give this report to the priests, I'm not going to stress that because, you know, you can't just go out and tell these guys who have given 30, 40, 50 years of their life, you know, you are all a bunch of degenerates.'"

Unbeknown to Ladensack, Dwyer had his own problems. In 1969, he began an affair with a troubled 15-year-old girl during a retreat he was coordinating. The relationship continued for years, culminating physically in 1981. Father Dwyer would pay the woman $75,000 in 1995 as part of a settlement.

In 1980, the degeneracy in Phoenix would personally touch Father Ladensack. That year, a youth minister came to Ladensack with an urgent request for a meeting with Bishop Rausch.

The youth minister said the Kulina family wanted a meeting because their young son, Ben, had been molested by Father John Giandelone. Then-monsignor Thomas O'Brien, the number-two man in the diocese, personally investigated and substantiated the allegations.

Monsignor O'Brien instructed the parents not to report the incident, promising that the church would remove Father Giandelone.

When he discovered that Bishop Rausch had transferred the predator priest to Father Ladensack's former parish in Chandler, Ladensack challenged his bishop's decision. He was rebuffed.

In short order, Bishop Rausch passed away, Monsignor O'Brien became Bishop O'Brien, and Father Ladensack discovered that the pedophile priest had been reassigned, again, this time to a high school.

Father Ladensack confronted Bishop O'Brien.

"I went down to O'Brien and said I'm really upset about this," Ladensack told investigators. "I have really tried to clean up these high schools, and I know Giandelone's past, I know what Giandelone has done, and the fact that he's now in one of my high schools really upset me."

Bishop O'Brien was not sympathetic.

"He said, 'That's my decision,'" recalled Ladensack. "'It's not for you to suggest. As a matter of fact, Joe, I think you're a little bit too obsessed with this gay pedophile issue. I think, Joe, you have some kind of problem. Maybe you need to go get counseling to deal with that problem.'"

O'Brien, newly installed, dismissed Reverend Dwyer's Ministry to Priests program and continued to clash with Father Ladensack. The new bishop ignored the screening protocols Father Ladensack had initiated for seminarians.

In 1984, Father Ladensack resigned as Vicar of Christian Formation and was reassigned by Bishop O'Brien to a gang-infested parish.

The day after he took his new assignment, Father Ladensack received an urgent phone call from a former parishioner in Chandler.

It would take nearly 20 years, but this conversation set events in play that convinced County Attorney Romley that Bishop O'Brien was guilty of obstruction of justice. The bishop would become the target of a grand jury investigation.

The phone call had followed Harry Takata's opening the door of his 15-year-old son's bedroom on May 26, 1984, and discovering Father John Giandelone performing oral sex on the youngster.

After throwing the priest out, the distraught parents phoned Father Ladensack.

"They said, 'Father Joe, you're the only one we thought we could call [who] might believe us," recalled Ladensack.

Harry Takata had a gun and wanted to kill Father Giandelone.

Instead, Father Ladensack helped the Takatas decide to call the police.

The pedophile would later tell authorities, "I was lonely, and all I wanted to do is love on him and lay my head on his stomach."

Using a secret line identified as "the bat phone," Ladensack called O'Brien who -- put out over the interruption -- told the priest, "This had better be good."

According to Ladensack's account, the bishop blew his stack.

"He said, 'Why did you go out there, why did you call the police? You have to come to me with [something like] this immediately, and to me first and only to me,'" related Ladensack.

"I thought O'Brien got livid before, but he was absolutely beyond himself."

Ladensack did not yield.

O'Brien said, "You owe me obedience, you took a vow of obedience, and must I remind you, young man, that you need to keep your vow of obedience."

By that time, Ladensack remembered, the bishop was "totally out of control."

It is at that moment, according to Ladensack, that Bishop Thomas J. O'Brien stepped over the line and broke the law.

"He said, 'I order you to go back to Chandler and tell that family to take back the complaint.'"

Ladensack refused.

"I said, 'Bishop O'Brien, excuse me, but you know that I'm a Vietnam vet. Have you ever heard of the Nuremberg trial? I was trained as a young officer that there are certain things called an unlawful order, and I consider what you're ordering me to do out of obedience to be an unlawful order and I refuse to do it.'"

A couple of days later, Father Ladensack claimed he received a phone call from diocese lawyer William P. Mahoney. The attorney told the priest the bishop was "extremely angry" with him. Nonetheless, Ladensack refused a second request to get the family to "unfile" the complaint.

The priest remembered the attorney's final words: "He said, 'Young man, you are part of the problem, not part of the solution.'"

While secretly shifting molesters to new schools is morally reprehensible, the bishop broke no laws when he advised the faithful to avoid the police, cover up the crime and put their faith in God.

But once the Takatas initiated contact with the police and filed a complaint, Bishop O'Brien obstructed justice by ordering Father Ladensack to pressure the parents into rescinding the paperwork.

The bishop's current attorney, Tom Henze, is unimpressed by Ladensack's testimony before the County Attorney's Office. In a recent interview, Henze pointed out that the former priest gave a different version of events in a 1990 deposition.

In a lawsuit involving infamous pedophile Father George Bredemann, Ladensack was asked specifically about the Takata phone call with Bishop O'Brien.

Question: "Were you questioned in any way as to whether you had recommended to the parents for them to call the police?"

Answer: "I do not remember that at all."

Officials inside the County Attorney's Office counter that Ladensack was fearful of retribution from church authorities against numerous relatives active in the church, some of whom had business relationships with the diocese. They also point out, correctly, that if you read the entire deposition, it is obvious that Ladensack's attorney instructs him directly to be evasive and not answer questions.

Prosecutors argue that, by 2002, Ladensack was prepared to let the chips fall where they may.

Lieutenant Mark Stribling heads up the Special Investigations Bureau in the County Attorney's Office after a long career with the Phoenix Police Department and the FBI. He called Ladensack one of the most credible witnesses he had ever interviewed.

And whatever inconsistencies Henze noted, the bishop clearly signed the admission-of-guilt decree because O'Brien did not want to pit his credibility against Ladensack's.

During the two years from the Takata phone call in 1984 until 1986, Father Ladensack continued to advise the victims of predator priests to go to the authorities, which placed him continually at odds with the bishop; O'Brien remained adamant that all incidents should be reported to him so that he could handle them independent of the police and prosecutors.

In 1986, Father Ladensack told his bishop that he had "severe problems " with O'Brien and the church and the way child-molesting priests were dealt with in Phoenix.

O'Brien responded by revoking Father Ladensack's privileges as a priest.

His successor read from the pulpit a letter penned by the bishop explaining that Father Ladensack had experienced a kind of breakdown triggered by his tour in Vietnam.

It is unsettling to witness that old Soviet trope -- the disappeared are mentally ill -- utilized by a man of the cloth to explain Ladensack's absence.

The truth was the priest left the church in a crisis of faith.

The only thing more shocking than the revelations of widespread child abuse by priests was the systemic protection and shuffling around of predators to new postings. Given the gay culture of the diocese in Phoenix, there were those who could not help but wonder if the bishop protected deviate gay priests because of the sexual milieu. This was a problem the bishop's public information officer often faced.

"The Catholic church has no more pedophilia than the rest of society," claimed Perkes.

A religion writer for the Arizona Republic before joining the bishop's staff, Perkes said gay priests are not the issue, but rather gay priests without sexual maturity.

Perkes does not believe predators were protected by a gay culture so much as church leaders simply hid incidents to protect themselves legally and financially. But she admits that Bishop O'Brien surrounded himself with advisers who refused to face the problem.

If insiders such as Perkes have a more complicated and nuanced understanding of the predator crisis, outsiders are left with a confusing picture. The church condemns homosexual acts as mortal sins and attacks the proposal of gay marriage, going so far as to demand that Catholic politicians toe the religious line. And yet the Catholic clergy is hugely gay and widely understood to be sexually active. In 2000, the Kansas City Star reported that the death rate among priests as a result of AIDS was at least four times greater than that of the general population.

And if, as Perkes suggests, the real question of import is one of sexual maturity, what must the church do to help young priests achieve that level of sophisticated development?

Failing that, how will the church protect its children from deviates?

How can it do anything in a climate of secrecy?

"Once again, child abuse, while the most heinous systemic problem, is not the only systemic problem," noted Perkes. "We don't address homosexual priests in an open and honest way. We, as a church, need to stop the Don't Ask, Don't Tell [policy]. Homosexuality is not discussed openly in the seminaries."

Rather than frank and open discussion, issues are suppressed.

As an example, Perkes touched upon the obvious.

"I hate to sound sexist," said Perkes, "but there is a different mentality in general in the way that men look at sexuality and the way women look at sexuality."

And gays also have their own orientation.

"[For] gay guys, the ads in the personals you often see [say]: 'I'm 21 but I look 16.' The culture of gay men venerates youth. You don't see this in lesbian ads," said Perkes.

If the youthful male figures on the Grecian urn represent an idealization, young priests are not, in Perkes' estimation, shown how to sort their way through a religion that demands so much sexual sacrifice from its clerics. She is not surprised that some priests lose their way.

"I believe, sadly, a lot of priests who are homosexuals went into the church when they thought they could pray this away," noted Perkes. "We as a society are not particularly mature about homosexuality. For a long time you couldn't even use that term in daily newspapers. Many of these men would have been okay as homosexuals, but as priests their sexuality is suppressed and they are in positions of power. A lot of priests come into seminaries at 13 or 14, and there is a lot of abuse in the seminaries."

In fact, on the topic of reform, Perkes was outspoken but frustrated.

"Look, Mary was between the age of 13 and 15 when she had Jesus," needled Perkes. "Our entire church started with some kind of pedophile act. Joseph was in his 30s."

Perkes' irreverence masks genuine concern. She fears that in an atmosphere that stifles open discussion, serious reform is only a dream.

"It's so lock-step, there is no room for criticism," said Perkes. "If you dare say anything, you're not a good Catholic. God knows I love the priests, but we should only support the good priests."

I am Catholic despite my clergy.

Having abandoned the faith decades ago, I returned to church this past year amidst the eruption of child-abuse accusations leveled at priests throughout the nation.

I had left the church, furious, when a priest refused to vouch to a judge on behalf of my kid brother, a former altar boy, who faced a trip to reform school, an East Coast lockup for kids. He explained that priests didn't get involved in civil affairs. I stewed for decades. But I guess I never stopped believing in God. It is uncomfortable to explain, and part of it's none of your business, but I will tell you this. We all have buried loved ones. The science of Darwin was never any comfort at a funeral. And I never saw an algebraic equation chalked out on any blackboard that explained the difference between the cadaver in the casket and the person I cherished. God made a difference with faith. In the past year, I decided that I regretted ever letting a priest -- of all things -- push me out of my pew.

Here, in Phoenix, the devout have been immersed in lurid stories of local predators protected by Bishop Thomas J. O'Brien. Church authorities claim their research shows more than 50 priests and employees of the diocese have touched and molested the underage in recent memory.

To be Catholic is to understand Christ's rage in the temple and with the Pharisees.

How does belief withstand a procession of assaults? The truth is that often faith cannot survive.

Before Father Giandelone molested teenage Harry Takata Jr., he preyed upon another youngster, Ben Kulina. Bishop O'Brien personally investigated the first assault and warned the parents not to talk to the authorities.

The Kulinas dutifully complied, but it cost them their faith in the church.

"To him, the church was the most important thing," Peggy Kulina said of her husband. "He was in denial that the church could do something like that, and he kept going to church. You know the church teaches that the wife doesn't say anything."

The Kulinas kept trying new churches, but nothing worked. Peggy Kulina could not adjust.

"I'd sit there and cry," said Kulina. "And he'd say, 'Don't be crying, the sermon he's giving is not that moving.' Well, that wasn't why I was crying. I was looking at the priest, like how many other kids have you abused . . . and he was just a different priest."

No matter how many churches they tried, the Kulinas could not make it work.

She said she has not lost her faith in God, but she is unable to recover.

"Now we don't go to church," said Kulina. "We're not in it, and we don't. We aren't."

While an admirer of Bishop O'Brien, Kim Sue Lia Perkes said her faith was tested during the pedophilia ordeal.

"The people around the bishop screwed with my faith," said Perkes. "Being a Catholic is an identity, as well as a faith. It cuts to the essence of who I am. I remember the nun who taught me, don't be afraid to stand alone. In the diocese, I always felt I was standing alone.

"I want my church to be a safe place for kids and a caring and compassionate church," said Perkes.

Too often the church wasn't.

According to Perkes, the priest in charge of counseling for abuse victims was callous about their emotional suffering.

"I remember Father Mike Dishkin saying, 'At some point, these people have to quit their whining and get on with their lives.'"

Perkes claimed that Father Dishkin believed the victims had a host of problems, other issues that preceded their molestations. His position was, the church shouldn't have to pay for all of that counseling.

"This one was really hard on me," recalled Perkes. "I wanted to open things up. I wanted to be decent to the victims.

"I talked to victims, which made his advisers very mad," said Perkes. "I wanted to scrutinize priests' records and clean house. I didn't understand why priests were fighting to keep from going through records and identifying bad priests. I mean, I got an earful."

Perkes said O'Brien is the best boss she ever worked for, but the portrait of his leadership only reinforced grave doubts: The church protected the worst of its priests, it cared little about victims, it fled from reform.

No one understands this better than Cindi Nannetti, head of the sex crimes unit in the County Attorney's Office. Her department oversaw the child-abuse investigation.

She lost her faith as a direct result of what she learned in this investigation.

Nannetti does not yield to clich. She pointed out that there is a greater percentage of heterosexual pedophiles than homosexual pedophiles. But she also noted that there is an abnormal level of deviant behavior that is not being addressed in the church.

"There is a lot of sexual abuse and violence in the seminaries," said Nannetti. "People go into the seminaries denying their sexuality. Later, they discover they can have free access to young boys and the unlimited trust of parents. It was absolutely easy for them."

The philosopher Hannah Arendt, perhaps the century's most insightful critic of moral failure, taught the lesson of the "banality of evil" when writing about Adolf Eichmann. In a later essay, The Deputy -- Guilt by Silence, she tackled Pope Pius XII, the cleric who sat impassively as the Holocaust unwound around him. Her description of the pope could be a description of our bishop: "such outrageous inadequacy" and a "disastrous loss of all feeling for reality."

It is little wonder that some have lost their faith.

"I'm still not going to church," said Nannetti. "I'd feel like a hypocrite. I am disgusted that my parents are raising money for the church."

For many, there is little sense of penance in the bishop's sentence for the hit-and-run.

Bishop O'Brien's sentence for fleeing the scene where he'd left a man dead in the street after running over him is grotesque. His punishment requires only that O'Brien behave in the future like a priest, that for 1,000 hours he will counsel and comfort the terminally ill.

He will be required to do that which he should have been doing all along.

In prison, they kill child molesters. In Judge Stephen A. Gerst's court, they forgive them.

It is enough to turn even the devout from the church, but perhaps not from God.

On Easter Sunday, I attended service at St. Simon and Jude, the cathedral where Bishop O'Brien regularly presided. His former press liaison, Perkes, suggested I might enjoy the choir at St. Simon.

The cathedral walls contain two plaques. One commemorates the visit of our homophobic pope, John Paul II, at St. Simon and Jude on September 14, 1987. The other bronze memorial honors Mother Teresa's visit on February 2, 1989. She is the beatified nun of the poor who wrote the courts a letter vouching for convicted swindler and Catholic charities underwriter Charles Keating. Both markers also honor Bishop Thomas J. O'Brien.

But none of those three are here at the 11 o'clock service, and I am.

Father Michael O'Grady is that wonderful sort, a priest with a sense of humor. Your ear tells you he is straight from the old sod, "Mary of Magdala came to the tomb air-lee in the morning."

The choir is indeed grand until it starts a modern song. The church possesses centuries of moving music, but no choir is immune to the egos that insist upon composing modern, tone-deaf ditties like, God help us all, "Lord of the Dance." It could not have been worse if Michael Flatley himself were entertaining: "I danced on the Sabbath and I cure the lame, the holy people, said it was a shame."

As far as I could tell, the tune to this song had three notes. Maybe four.

But never mind. It was good to be in church. I was glad I'd resisted the temptation to storm out over Bishop O'Brien.

People are different on Easter than on other Sundays. There are more of them, for one thing. Little girls are nicely dressed and comfort stuffed bunnies throughout the service. One tiny boy sported a lime green golf shirt, shorts, and cowboy boots up to his knees. Stylin'.

But no matter what Sunday you attend, almost the entire congregation takes communion, a dramatic change from when I served Mass.

In the church bulletin, Father O'Grady wrote, "You may have drifted away, walked away or even run away from the church . . . for your own particular reasons."

He invited the disaffected to a meeting. Bishop O'Brien was not mentioned.

Two weeks before Easter, the bishop had underscored his level of remorse for killing Jim Reed the night of the hit-and-run. He had returned to the court and asked that his drive time to and from the deathbeds be included as community service. Understand, he is chauffeured to each of these visits.

As I contemplated Father O'Grady's gracious invitation to the disaffected, I thought about O'Brien and his chauffeur and the terrible toll this man has taken upon the devout.

There are too many who have left the church in deep pain over the pedophilia scandal. What they have lost is their faith. The mystery that turns the bread and wine into the body of Jesus Christ is answered by faith. This particular mystery gives Catholics the answer to life and death and offers hope in the face of judgment and eternity. Bishop Thomas J. O'Brien snatched that faith away from too many innocents.

"Take away our faith," said Father O'Grady on Easter Sunday, "and it's just bread."

E-mail [email protected], or call 602-229-8404.

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