Moral Minority

In a stunning and welcome reversal, Bishop Thomas O'Brien is now apparently cooperating with the Maricopa County Attorney's investigation of the alleged sexual misconduct of Father Patrick Colleary, whose sins you first read about in this column.

The Phoenix Diocese not only agreed to comply fully with a grand jury subpoena for Colleary's files, but also asked the county attorney to send a broader subpoena seeking all files documenting sexual misconduct with a minor by priests or any diocesan employee.

Since this reversal, O'Brien has removed three priests: Joseph Briceno, Joseph Lessard and Harold Graf. He also promised to move more aggressively in defrocking three of the Valley's most notorious abusers, Mark Lehman, Lan Sherwood and George Bredemann, chronic abusers of children who have been the subjects of several New Times stories dating back to 1989.

O'Brien has also promised to sweep the files of all Catholic churches, schools and other institutions for records of allegations of sexual misconduct. According to O'Brien's new attorney, Mike Manning, the bishop explicitly told his attorneys that any evidence of his own criminal negligence or obstruction should be immediately sent to the county attorney.

Any new complaints the Diocese receives, Manning and O'Brien say, will be turned over immediately to county attorney investigators.

This is a remarkable turnaround and a courageous new path for the bishop and the Diocese of Phoenix.

There's good reason to fear it soon will be aborted.

According to diocese insiders, a battle is brewing among attorneys and other advisers for the ear of Bishop O'Brien.

In my mind, it's nothing less than a Book of Revelations-style battle between good and evil.

On one side, you have the architect of the Diocese's stunning new glasnost, Mike Manning, arguably Arizona's most respected attorney. Manning has had the bishop's ear for the last month. And Manning is the only person County Attorney Rick Romley fully trusts in the Diocese.

On the other side, you have the Diocese's longtime general counsel, Greg Leisse, and another attorney, Jim Belanger, who many credit more than Bishop O'Brien for the outrageous history of arrogance and obstruction in the Phoenix Diocese.

Neither Bishop O'Brien nor Leisse responded to my requests for interviews on the subject.

Belanger said he could not comment on the internal legal politics of the Diocese, but did say:

"If we have a properly constituted grand jury subpoena, the Diocese will respond to that."

That is vastly different language from Manning's response to Romley's subpoena. "As I indicated," Manning wrote June 17, "we will begin the process by cooperating fully in your investigation."

Insiders say O'Brien apparently is beginning to listen to Leisse and Belanger again.

If this is true and the bishop is considering returning to gamesmanship, the bishop has several downsides to consider:

• Manning will leave. He will not be a part of the kind of outrageous behavior he has fought all his career. With him will go any goodwill and trust from outside the church.

• Investigators will raid the diocesan offices.

• Lawsuits, augmented by the bishop's obstruction, will bankrupt the Diocese.

• O'Brien will be removed by his own parishioners, many of whom already are calling for his ouster.

The easy solution: Stick with Manning.

Mike Manning, if you didn't know, is the remarkably deft slayer of the famed dragons of Charles Keating, Fife Symington and Joe Arpaio. Manning has been deified in the press for the last 15 years because he nearly always finds the highest moral ground in monumental battles.

If you've read Tucson author Charles Bowden's wonderful book on the savings and loan disaster of the 1980s, Trust Me, you can't help but see Manning as the brilliant, ethical, hardworking protagonist fighting the greedy moneychangers of that decade.

After two years of watching Manning and working with him on several stories, I have no reason not to share that respect for him.

That said, however, Manning, a lifelong quietly devout Catholic, clearly has a deep admiration for O'Brien, an admiration that must skew his objectivity. Manning also is a close friend to O'Brien's likely successor, Reverend Dale Fushek, for whom the Diocese settled a sexual harassment complaint for $45,000.

Indeed, Manning began discussing new legal strategies for the Diocese because of revelations regarding Fushek.

In early March, I began investigating accusations that the church had quietly settled numerous sexual harassment cases against Fushek.

Fushek got wind that I was calling around and contacted Manning for legal advice.

Manning apparently told Fushek that he knew me and would call me. The truth, Manning told me at the time, was that there was only "one, small, no-touch settlement regarding an adult" against Fushek. In other words, there had been a settlement for nuisance value over an allegation that did not involve physical contact and did not involve a minor. Manning said he knew the facts because he was on the board of the youth organization Fushek headed. According to Manning, that was all there was to the story.

Finding no verification of other settlements, or other credible accusations, I believed Manning and believed a small settlement wasn't newsworthy considering Fushek has ministered to thousands of young people and adults in the last two decades.

At that time, though, on the wider issue of diocesan silence on priest sexual misconduct, Manning told me he was becoming increasingly frustrated with the Diocese's policy of obstruction and silence.

"It should all be laid out in the light," he told me at the time. "It's the smart thing to do. And way beyond that, it's the right thing for a church to do."

A month later, I broke the story of Father Patrick Colleary's alleged history of abusing children and taking advantage of women who came to him for grief counseling, as well as Bishop O'Brien's history of shielding Colleary even though O'Brien knew Colleary was trouble.

Within weeks, Romley opened a formal investigation of the accusations against Colleary.

According to sources, as the Colleary mess exploded, Manning and O'Brien began discussing the possibility of profoundly overhauling the Diocese's policies regarding the investigations and disclosures of sexual misconduct by priests.

Bishop O'Brien, a longtime church bureaucrat comfortable with parishioners but leery and nervous with outsiders, particularly the media, particularly this medium, struggled with the ideas of airing the church's dirty laundry and playing a more aggressive and public role in reform.

Before the monumental bishops conference in Dallas in June, and shortly after the arrival of the Colleary grand jury subpoena, O'Brien decided to commit himself fully to Manning's plan. Manning was hired on and responded to the subpoena before the bishop headed to Dallas.

Not coincidentally, the bishop's general counsel, Leisse, was vacationing in Europe at the time.

Leisse has since returned.

O'Brien should send him back to Europe.

On paper, Manning's plan for cleansing the Phoenix Diocese of sexual misconduct is arguably the most progressive of its kind in the country.

"We have gone way beyond what the law requires," Manning says. "The bishop wants heads to roll and collars to fall of any priest who has sexually abused a minor or sexually assaulted an adult."

What if everybody in the Diocese office doesn't buy into this?

That's precisely the fear of County Attorney Rick Romley.

"I have a tremendous amount of respect for Mike," Romley told me. "He has a good plan. I will trust him.

"But I will verify."

Investigators also have heard about the power struggle within the Diocese office. Romley's office has not received all the files they believe they should receive. They are fearful that Manning's plan is being undermined from within.

"It's very simple," Romley says. "If they don't give everything, I will use the full power of the grand jury to get everything that is appropriate."

So the clock is ticking.

And if Mike Manning isn't utterly forthright and completely successful in purging sexual abusers in the church, there will be hell to pay for his firm, Bishop O'Brien and the Diocese of Phoenix.