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Bishop O'Brien Admits Cover-Up In Handling Sexual Abuse Cases

Jun 2, 2003 | The Arizona Republic

Bishop Thomas J. O'Brien has acknowledged that he covered up allegations of sexual abuse by priests for decades and will relinquish some of his power as head of the Phoenix Diocese to avoid possible criminal indictment, The Arizona Republic has learned.

O'Brien's dramatic admission and his decision to surrender some authority came in a five-page agreement the bishop signed last month when Maricopa County Attorney Rick Romley threatened to bring him before a grand jury.

The legally binding document is one of the most candid confessions by any bishop in the country that official church policy endangered children and allowed some priests to continue molesting minors long after their sexual histories were known.

O'Brien signed the agreement twice in the presence of his lawyers, acknowledging his actions both as an individual and as head of the Phoenix Diocese.

In December, O'Brien revealed that at least 50 priests, former priests and church employees had been accused of sexual misconduct with children in the Phoenix Diocese during the past three decades. He declined to identify many of them and denied their actions were covered up.

Romley refused late Sunday to confirm or deny that he had reached any agreement with O'Brien. He did say, however, that he planned to make "several significant announcements" at a news conference this morning.

O'Brien politely refused to make any comment about the agreement during a brief conversation Sunday night outside Our Lady of Mount Carmel Church in Tempe, where he presided at confirmation ceremonies for 41 young parishioners.

"You have to talk to the county attorney," the bishop said. "I can't say anything. It is up to him."

The agreement O'Brien signed details 14 concessions by the bishop and the diocese, including a pledge to revamp the church hierarchy in Phoenix and provisions for significant financial settlements.

Central to the agreement is an 82-word statement by O'Brien that he knowingly let priests accused of sexual misconduct work with children and that he transferred clergy accused of abuse without telling their superiors or parishioners about the allegations.

Both admissions contrast with repeated denials and assurances by O'Brien.

"No one in this diocese who commits crimes against youths will be protected by the church," O'Brien said at a news conference June 21, when he vowed to "lead the nation" in cleaning up the sex abuse scandal.

Four and a half months later, on Nov. 8, he repeated his vow in a letter read to the faithful in all 89 parishes of the diocese.

"As long as I am your bishop, I will not tolerate any kind of sexual molestation or assault whether with a child or an adult by clergy or diocesan employees. I will not alter my commitment to you to provide the safest and most secure environment possible for our children."

Wanted to resign

Sources close to O'Brien said the bishop offered to resign before signing the sex abuse statement and discussed the possibility with his advisers and Apostolic Nuncio Gabriel Montalvo, the pope's representative in Washington. Only the pope can accept a bishop's resignation.

The Vatican refused to allow O'Brien to step down, the sources said, for fear that such a move would create the impression the church was yielding to pressure from civil authorities and disgruntled faithful.

Last year, the Vatican refused to accept the resignation of embattled Boston Cardinal Bernard Law for similar reasons. Pope John Paul II later relented and accepted Law's resignation Dec. 13.

The agreement O'Brien signed guarantees him immunity from prosecution for any criminal cover-up or for failing to report sexual abuse by priests he supervised.

But Romley reserved the right to bring charges against individual priests accused of sexual misconduct, including O'Brien himself if the bishop ever faced allegations of personal, direct involvement in criminal sexual activity.

In what may be a signal that Romley intends to aggressively pursue sex offenders within the church, his office issued a warrant late last week for a former priest who worked in the West Valley from 1986 to 1993.

The Rev. Paul LeBrun was arrested Friday near the University of Notre Dame campus at a mission house where he had been living since having his privileges to serve as a priest removed two years ago. Two men who said they were abused as boys by LeBrun in Arizona cooperated this year with investigators.

Romley refused to comment on LeBrun's arrest, but the former priest's attorney and the head of his religious order confirmed that he was awaiting extradition to Maricopa County on felony sex charges.

LeBrun transferred to Arizona with O'Brien's permission in 1986 and worked with children at St. John Vianney parish in Goodyear.

He later was youth minister at Blessed Sacrament in Tolleson before returning to Indiana.

Yields some authority

Under the agreement O'Brien signed, he will surrender some of his authority to three newly appointed officials.

The bishop agreed to give up power to deal with sex abuse allegations by clergy in the diocese. If he breaches that promise, he can be prosecuted.

A new independent special advocate will handle sexual misconduct complaints with the help of a new diocesan attorney, who replaces the bishop's longtime legal adviser, Greg Leisse, on those cases.

O'Brien also agreed to appoint a moderator of the Curia, the ecclesiastic equivalent of a chief of staff, who will oversee day-to-day administration of the diocese.

The position is optional, but traditionally the vicar general of a diocese becomes moderator of the Curia if one is appointed.

The Phoenix Diocese has two vicars general, Monsignors Richard W. Moyer and Dale J. Fushek. Moyer is chief financial officer for the diocese and most likely to get the new post since Fushek acknowledged last year that he paid $45,000 to settle a sexual harassment claim filed by a male parishioner.

Under the agreement, O'Brien remains titular head of the Phoenix church he has led since November 1981 but will hold diminished powers until he reaches retirement or steps down for health reasons.

Mandatory retirement age for bishops is 75, though the Vatican has approved early retirement requests from bishops who are at least 70. O'Brien is 67.

Friends and aides say O'Brien's health has suffered considerably during the past year in which he and the diocese faced ongoing criminal investigations, several civil lawsuits and intense media scrutiny.

Seven Catholic bishops across the United States have resigned since allegations of sexual abuse by priests and claims of cover-up by senior church leaders began making national headlines in early 2002.

Two of the bishops who resigned were accused of sexually abusing minors.

Two others acknowledged they had sexual relations with male or female adults. And the other three, including 71-year-old Cardinal Law, were at or near retirement age when the pope allowed them to resign amid harsh criticism of their handling of sex abuse allegations.

Bishop Manuel D. Moreno of Tucson, a close friend of O'Brien, was one of the seven who stepped down. He resigned in March at age 72, citing serious health issues, including prostate problems and the onset of Parkinson's disease.

The way to Moreno's retirement was cleared 17 months earlier when the Tucson Diocese faced a series of sexual abuse lawsuits and the Vatican named co-adjutor bishop to work with him.

A co-adjutor is a bishop-in-waiting with guaranteed rights of succession.

Attempt to persuade

Two of Arizona's most prominent attorneys, both Catholic, tried late last year to persuade the Phoenix Diocese to begin a similar power transition by requesting a co-adjutor to work with O'Brien.

Ernest Calderon, president of the Arizona Bar Association, and Michael C. Manning, who represented O'Brien and the diocese for several months, said they were rebuffed by the church when they suggested the co-adjutor option.

The alternative of appointing a moderator of the Curia in Phoenix, rather than a co-adjutor, emerged during prolonged discussions earlier this year. An important difference is that a moderator of the Curia works for, and with, the bishop rather than as a co-equal who will eventually succeed him.

O'Brien's admissions and his decision to revamp the power structure of the diocese were a direct result of pressure from a yearlong criminal investigation that Romley began May 30, 2002.

Several grand juries were empanelled during that investigation. So far, only two men - a priest and a former priest have been indicted on charges of sexual misconduct with minors that occurred decades ago.

The indictment against the priest was dropped because the statute of limitations on the charges had expired, while the former priest was sentenced to 22 months in prison and cooperated with the grand jury investigations of the church.

Since 1985, three others priests George Bredemann, Mark Lehman and Joseph Marcel Lessard have been sentenced to prison or jail time for sex-related offenses. Another 19 of the more than 700 priests who have worked in the Phoenix Diocese since its founding Dec. 9, 1969, have been arrested, suspended from public ministry or named in lawsuits for sex-related offenses.

At a news conference Dec. 13, Romley hinted the pace and scope of his cover-up investigation might be influenced if O'Brien removed himself as head of the Phoenix Diocese.

"That would provide an opportunity for the church to move on and put this issue behind it," Romley said. "That would be a factor that I consider very heavily when I try to weigh the endgame to all of this."

More prosecutions?

At the same time, Romley was adamant in December that whatever happened with any conspiracy investigation, he intended to aggressively prosecute individual priests or church employees accused of personal misconduct. Nothing he has said since would indicate a change of mind. In fact, the arrest of LeBrun during the weekend seemed a clear signal that Romley's investigations were continuing.

O'Brien isn't the first bishop in the country to acknowledge covering up sexual misconduct by priests under his supervision, but his statement was particularly blunt.

Boston's Cardinal Law admitted he transferred priests with known histories of sexual abuse to new parishes where they continued their abuse. But Law's admission came in court records that were sealed before a Massachusetts judge finally ordered them released.

The closest thing to O'Brien's candid admission came in December when Bishop John B. McCormack of the Roman Catholic Diocese of New Hampshire avoided indictment by signing a statement accepting "responsibility for failures in our system that contributed to the endangerment of children."

While the deal O'Brien signed with Romley ends any threat that he could be indicted for obstructing justice or conspiring to protect priests, legal experts say his admissions could affect current and future civil suits against the diocese.

O'Brien said in December that the diocese had paid less than $2 million to settle sex abuse claims against priests and church employees during the past 20 years. But at least three pending lawsuits accuse the bishop of failing to protect children who were victimized by abusive priests.

The Tucson Diocese last year paid $14 million to settle 11 lawsuits brought by 16 defendants who claimed they were abused by priests. A key element of those suits were claims that two Tucson bishops knew of the priests' behavior and failed to take proper action.

Similar claims against bishops and abusive priests have led to even greater settlements against the church across the country.

In an article headlined "Sex, Greed & God," Forbes magazine reports in its June 9 editions that "the church's legal problems are worse even than most people realize." The article says that $1 billion in damages have been paid out for victims of pedophile priests and indications are "the total will approach $5 billion before the crisis is over."


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