Bishop Thomas J. O'Brien ought to be on his knees, praying for forgiveness.
On Friday, August 27, Father Wilputte Alanson "Lan" Sherwood was sentenced to ten years in prison. In diaries and home movies seized by the police, the priest had chronicled his own sexual liaisons with 22 underage boys. Before handing down the terms of confinement, Judge Cheryl Hendrix viewed a videotape of Reverend Sherwood performing oral sex on a 14-year-old child.
But Sherwood's superior, the man responsible for the priest's astounding record of depravity, Bishop Thomas J. O'Brien, did not get so much as a stern lecture from the judge, let alone the jail sentence he so richly deserves for his gross negligence. Make no mistake. Reverend Lan Sherwood was the perpetrator, but Bishop O'Brien was the facilitator.
When Sherwood was arrested in the mid-80s for deviant acts, the Bishop gave him five Hail Marys as a penance and then released him into the community, where the priest prowled the Valley's freeways looking for hitchhikers to prey upon. The priest would engage in another seven years of aberrant sexual behavior before he was brought to justice. Bishop O'Brien should be held accountable. On July 1, 1986, Father Sherwood was arrested in Pleasure World Adult Bookstore in Phoenix, where the police observed him masturbating. The priest informed his Bishop of the incident. What did Bishop O'Brien do? Not a damn thing. Bishop O'Brien did not relieve Sherwood of his responsibilities as a priest. He did not ask the authorities if this was the first time Lan had been picked up for such an offense. He did not even tell Sherwood to get counseling. Bishop O'Brien has rationalized his negligence in 1986 by claiming that a priest getting busted for masturbating in an adult bookstore was not unusual.
"I believed my response was appropriate for that one incident [in 1986]," the Bishop said at a press conference. "If you asked me what I would do today faced with a similar situation, in the context of 1993 and considering what we know about this type of behavior, my actions might well be different." Which is a crock. By 1986, when Reverend Sherwood was arrested in Pleasure World, church leaders were well aware that they had a massive problem with deviant priests. But the clergy was still trying to hide the problem rather than deal with it. In 1985, fully one year before Reverend Sherwood was picked up in Pleasure World, the Catholic Church secretly distributed to its bishops internal documents declaring that pedophilia by priests was a national problem. In Phoenix, from 1984 to 1990, four priests were put on leave for molesting children. Three of the four cases involved the abuse of young boys. In each instance, Bishop O'Brien personally wrote to the courts begging for leniency for his perverts. And in each instance, the judge kowtowed to his eminence, sentencing none of the molesters to more than a year in prison. By 1986, when Lan Sherwood told O'Brien about masturbating in the adult bookstore, the Bishop was not interested in managing the problem of sick priests; he was only interested in keeping the lid on. Today, Bishop O'Brien wants us to believe that a priest busted in an adult bookstore is not a red-flag situation.
Ask yourself if you really believe that. By definition, anyone in a position of authority caught playing with himself in a bookstore has problems. Consider for a moment the story of attorney Sheldon Kelman.
There was a period a few years back when you could run into Kelman after work at Feeney's bar. The lawyers who gathered there to drink joked behind Kelman's back that when greeting Sheldon, you never shook hands--you only waved. You see, on March 6, 1986, Kelman had been arrested in the Owl Adult Bookstore for masturbating. No one at Feeney's wanted Kelman taken into the courtyard and stoned to death. Kelman's behavior was more sad than criminal. But no one believed that Sheldon ought to be put in charge of the local Boy Scout troop, either. Everyone understood that Kelman was a sick puppy. It didn't take long for this common-sense judgment to be confirmed. In 1987, accused murderer Robert Cruz fired Kelman, charging the attorney with witness tampering, falling asleep during the trial and making faces during the prosecutor's closing argument. In 1989, Kelman represented another man accused of murder, Kenneth Zarska. After a conviction on three homicide counts, Maricopa County Superior Court Judge John Sticht granted the defendant a new trial, saying evidence showed "Attorney Kelman was addicted to cocaine and was freebasing cocaine regularly during the evenings and potentially during trial breaks." None of this behavior surprised anyone familiar with Kelman's history; after all, his judgment and mental health were always suspect following his arrest at the Owl Adult Bookstore. So when the Bishop claims he had no idea in 1986 that Reverend Sherwood's arrest in an adult bookstore was cause for alarm, I wonder whom O'Brien thinks he's kidding. Any responsible religious leader would have checked with authorities to see if the 1986 arrest was Father Sherwood's first. Bishop O'Brien would have learned that his priest had been busted for the same offense in 1984. Bishop O'Brien should have asked just exactly what kind of erotica Reverend Sherwood was viewing prior to his two arrests: heterosexual, homosexual, animal, underage, bondage. Instead of ordering Father Sherwood into counseling, Bishop O'Brien returned the priest to Saint Benedict's Church in Chandler, where Lan ran the parish and oversaw, among other things, its youth programs and altar boys. It doesn't take a Sigmund Freud to grasp the concept that Pee-wee Herman in a trench coat is not a suitable au pair. As a result of Bishop O'Brien's policy of la dolce vita, Father Lan Sherwood was able to compile the following record: From 1984 to 1993, Reverend Sherwood drove local highways picking up hitchhikers. He engaged in an incredible 1,840 homosexual liaisons during that period. The priest kept detailed ledgers and a calendar-type log of every encounter, using a rating system that graded the victim's body, face, sexual activity and personality. In 1985, the year Bishop O'Brien appointed Father Sherwood to establish and run Saint Benedict's, the priest acquired a camcorder and began to videotape these sex acts. Sherwood moved like a vampire among the transients and runaways thumbing for rides on Arizona's freeways. Part of America's voiceless underclass, these hitchhikers traded the only things of value they possessed--their bodies--for showers, food, laundry and handouts.
"The victims," wrote Probation Officer Sandra Lewis-George in her presentence report, "were needy individuals who[m] Mr. Sherwood manipulated by providing basic street needs." The priest's own records indicate that he spent nearly $14,000 on his sexual conquests.
Reverend Sherwood's defenders told the judge that the priest never molested the children in his parish, as if buying and molesting indigent teenage hitchhikers is somehow less repugnant than fondling the faithful at Saint Benedict's. Can you imagine listening to such an outrageous alibi, if you were the parent of a runaway who ended up in Father Sherwood's Hyundai?
A church spokesman, Assistant Chancellor Michael Diskin, informed the court that Reverend Sherwood should not be viewed as a pedophile. He only molested kids when he could not find a suitable adult male for oral sex. "It is Diskin's belief," wrote Lewis-George in her presentence report, "that Father Sherwood's case is entirely different from those other priests who have molested in the past. He stated Father Sherwood's case involved situational incidents involving children and not a predisposition towards molesting minors." Apparently, the 22 kids Father Lan Sherwood violated are simply details in the eyes of Diskin and O'Brien. Edward, 14, was one of those details. One year after Bishop O'Brien returned Reverend Sherwood to Saint Benedict's, the priest drove to the church's rectory with his young passenger. Court documents not previously discussed in the press reveal the following:
We Believe Local Journalism is Critical to the Life of a City
Engaging with our readers is essential to Phoenix New Times's mission. Make a financial contribution or sign up for a newsletter, and help us keep telling Phoenix's stories with no paywalls.
Support Our Journalism
On September 22, 1987, Father Sherwood videotaped Edward. As the youngster masturbates, you can hear the priest's voice on the videotape: "Do me one favor: stand up, turn sideways." Soon Father Sherwood is performing oral sex on the boy and masturbating himself. The priest tells the youth, "Big dick, Edward, for a 14-year-old boy." As the youngster ejaculates, the priest exclaims, "That's a lot," and, "Mucho leche." Father Sherwood told the probation officer that he was "unsure" if he psychologically damaged the minors that he molested. Still, church apologists ask us to remember that Edward was not a member of Saint Benedict's; furthermore, Reverend Sherwood and Assistant Chancellor Diskin agree that the priest would have preferred a young man in his 20s to the pubescent Edward.
From this unique perspective, Bishop O'Brien's ready tolerance of Father Lan's romps in adult bookstores is perfectly understandable. The fact is these clerics no longer have a moral or ethical compass. Child abuse and deviant acts are easy for them to rationalize.
The court was curious to see if the community at large shared the Bishop's enlightened and forgiving attitude. While Judge Hendrix was acknowledged as capable of digesting the confidential dialogue between Edward and Reverend Sherwood, the Bishop's spokesman decided that community response was simply too sensitive for the judge's review. "Mr. Diskin stated that the input the church received from the community was an emotional response from people and is considered privileged information," the probation officer's report said.
The Bishop's misplaced sense of discretion is merely the latest attempt at damage control. He is, in reality, afraid to give voice to the outrage expressed by his flock. Bishop Thomas J. O'Brien has been incompetent in rooting out the sick lechers who preach from his pulpits. During his lengthy confession to the Chandler police, Reverend Sherwood said he was recognized in adult bookstores by other priests who were also there for self-abuse. Has Bishop O'Brien asked Reverend Sherwood the identities of these wayward priests? According to Father Sherwood's attorney, Ted Jarvi, the answer is no. It is time for Bishop Thomas J. O'Brien to step down or be replaced. He is a disgrace to the office.