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Diocese Hands Over Names

Sep 10, 2002 | The Arizona Republic

The names of 15 priests and other employees have been forwarded to the Maricopa County Attorney's Office by the Catholic Diocese of Phoenix as part of an ongoing investigation of sexual misconduct in the diocese.

Michael Manning, an attorney for the Catholic Church in Phoenix, says he expects to turn over five more names in response to a June subpoena from the county, which is conducting a criminal investigation of misconduct allegations.

"We are doing our best to cooperate," the diocese's Bishop Thomas O'Brien said in a Thursday interview. "We are hoping for the best."Manning refused to disclose names but said the records include many priests who already have been convicted or suspended because of sex-related charges. In addition, the list likely includes two youth ministers who pleaded guilty to sex-related charges earlier this year.

Hired by the diocese in June to help it respond to a grand jury subpoena, Manning has pulled together a team of seven attorneys and former local FBI head James Ahearn to concentrate on a batch of more than 100 files that have been generated when sexual allegations have been made.

Allegations range from a claim that a janitor leered at schoolgirls all the way to charges of sexual abuse by priests.

Manning said the panel is taking a broad approach to the subpoena, by expanding the search to include sexual misconduct with adults, by taking it back further than the 1978 date specified in the document, and by reporting any action that might qualify as criminal.

The subpoena was issued June 28, nearly a month after County Attorney Rick Romley opened a formal investigation. Romley said new and "very disturbing" evidence convinced him "the church has not been forthcoming with reporting matters that they are required to report under the law." He has not described the evidence.

The investigation is one of dozens taking place across the country in light of allegations that church leaders have enabled abusers by shuffling them from parish to parish. The problem of abusive priests first came to light in the 1980s, and it erupted this year with allegations against abusive priests in Boston.

In response, Catholic bishops meeting in Dallas in mid-June drafted a policy, called the Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People, that calls on bishops to remove abusers from all priestly activity.

O'Brien's promise

"We will implement the charter," O'Brien said. "That is what we as bishops are obliged to do."

O'Brien began doing so on June 22, one week after the bishops passed it. On that day, he removed three priests from duty.

The Rev. Harold Graf was the only one of the three who was currently serving as a priest in the diocese. No charges have been filed, nor have any public allegations been made against Graf. Diocese officials, however, learned of a complaint made in 1974 and, based on that, removed him from his duties.

The Graf action is evidence "this bishop is committed to moving ahead of the pack nationally," Manning said. "He will not defer his decisions until the county attorney acts."

Such action will help restore the church's image, O'Brien said. The bishop said Manning's work should be completed by the end of this month.

Bill FitzGerald, spokesman for the County Attorney's Office, confirmed that records have been produced and that the investigation is ongoing. He would not say whether any new allegations had been made, nor would he put a time frame on the investigation.

"There have been no proven accusations (against priests who abused children) in this diocese in years," O'Brien said. He credited the establishment of a diocesan sexual-abuse policy in 1990, updated in 1995, to cover sexual misconduct.

Diocesan spokeswoman Kim Sue Lia Perkes said more than 40,000 people have gone through the sex-abuse training mandated in the policy, including all diocesan employees and all volunteers who work with young people.

O'Brien said he has told an internal review team to adjust the policy so it conforms to the Dallas charter.

He also said he may name a panel of prominent Catholics to review the policy when it is finished.

A key policy change, he said, will be that the diocese will report all allegations to authorities, not just charges that it deems credible.

Tucson copies Phoenix

The Tucson Diocese, which covers southern Arizona, recently published a new sexual-abuse policy patterned after the Phoenix one. Work began in February, shortly after the Tucson Diocese settled 11 lawsuits for an estimated $15 million.

Ross Collins, an actor who is a member of St. Joseph's parish in Phoenix, agreed that the bishop "needs to step up" with full disclosure.

"We need to find out why this is happening and what we can do to stop it," he said.

"Being a Catholic in this day and age has not been easy," added Collins, who volunteers with young people at the church.

O'Brien said he believes the church will survive the scandal.

"This is a time of crisis that will pass, and we will come through this," he said. "The church belongs to God, and if he wants us to go through it, we will."

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