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Diocese Records Subpoenaed

Jun 28, 2002 | The Archdiocese of Boston Letter

A grand jury on Thursday subpoenaed all church records of any criminal sexual misconduct by any clergy or agents of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Phoenix.

The records request had been anticipated since last week, when Bishop Thomas J. O'Brien pledged full cooperation with an investigation being conducted by Maricopa County Attorney Rick Romley.

"The bishop has said to go back as far as we have records," Michael Manning, O'Brien's attorney, said Thursday.

Because grand jury proceedings are confidential, the subpoena allows the church to fulfill its promise to report all cases of sexual misconduct between priests and minors to authorities without making details public.

Names of victims and offenders could become public only if the grand jury indicts someone.

Romley said this is a first step in an in-depth investigation. "Our general philosophy is that I'll be trusting the church," he said Thursday night. "But I'll be verifying everything they provide us and we'll go from there."

Phoenix is at least the ninth diocese in the country to have a grand jury convened to look into criminal misconduct, according to A.W. Richard Sipe, an expert witness in 56 such cases since 1993.

"Across the country, the bishops have proven not to be accountable, and they have not been able to monitor themselves. This is the natural consequence of that deficit," said Sipe, of La Jolla, Calif.

The number of grand juries, investigations and public announcements of the removal of priests from ministry has grown since bishops met earlier this month in Dallas.

"If the bishops want transparency and they want oversight, they have to do this," Sipe said. "You don't convene a grand jury unless you have some real reason to suspect there's something."

In some cases, the bishops may face indictments, Sipe predicted.

Manning said that individuals are the focus of the Phoenix investigation, not the bishop or the diocese, and he does not expect O'Brien to be indicted.

O'Brien announced last Friday that three priests had admitted improper sexual conduct with minors and were banned for life from celebrating Mass in public, wearing clerical garb or identifying themselves as priest.

Only the Rev. Harold Graf, 60, was still in active ministry. The two other priests, the Revs. Joseph Lessard, and Joseph Briceno, 56, were removed from active ministry years ago, but never had been formally banned from acting as priests.

O'Brien also encouraged victims to come forward. So far, Manning said, he knows of one victim who has come forward to the diocese.

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