Bishop Thomas O’Brien, facing a still-vague and seemingly remote threat of criminal indictment, announced Thursday that he will speak only with the county attorney or a grand jury if he is granted immunity from prosecution.
The announcement came during a frenetic day in which, for the second time this week, a Roman Catholic priest was indicted involving sex crimes and new evidence emerged that O’Brien may have transferred known molesters from parish to parish.
“If the county attorney wants to speak with Bishop O’Brien, we can’t advise him to do that without an assurance of immunity,” said O’Brien’s attorney, Michael Manning. “A week ago that assurance would not have been necessary. But the county attorney has rattled the saber of criminal indictment, and that changes everything.”
Maricopa County Attorney Rick Romley said earlier this week that O’Brien could face criminal charges if prosecutors found evidence the bishop covered up crimes, failed to report abuse or obstructed justice.
Manning said the bishop has nothing to fear and, in fact, had planned to speak openly with Romley’s investigators soon. Now, the lawyer said, the threat of criminal indictment changed everything.
“A lawyer would have to be a moron to let his client speak without immunity after a county attorney goes and tells however many million people there are in this Valley that he is considering bringing an indictment,” Manning said.
War of words
The escalating war of words and legal maneuvering came at the end of what Romley called the “first bite” of his ongoing criminal investigation into the Phoenix Diocese’s handling of sex-abuse allegations.
That investigation began in May and led to the indictments this week of the Rev. Patrick Colleary and former Valley priest John Maurice Giandelone. Both were accused of sexual misconduct dating to the late 1970s.
In both cases, victims families claimed O’Brien urged them to keep silent about their allegations for the good of the church. The families said O’Brien promised to have the priest offenders removed from their parishes.
Both those cases occurred shortly before O’Brien became bishop in 1982. And, in both cases, the accused priests were transferred to other parishes, where they molested other children.
“We have a number of cases that have been reported by different individuals that Father O’Brien did do this regularly,” Romley said. “He (told the victims), ‘Don’t go to civil authorities, we will take care of it.’ It is troubling to me that there was a greater concern for the image of the church than the victimization of the children.”
On Tuesday, Peggy and Benedict Kulina of Phoenix accused O’Brien of urging them to keep quiet and promised to transfer Giandelone when they reported that their teenage son, Benjamin, now a Mesa police lieutenant, was molested in 1979. Giandelone was transferred shortly after the Kulinas said they met with O’Brien, and four years later he pleaded guilty to sexually abusing another teen in Chandler.
On Wednesday, O’Brien’s attorney said that the bishop had no memory of the incident and that the church was unable to find any record of the meeting with the Kulinas.
On Thursday, Romley said county investigators who traveled to Florida to arrest Giandelone uncovered new evidence of O’Brien’s involvement in Giandelone’s case.
“When I was transferred (from a Phoenix parish to Chandler), Tommy O’Brien came to see me and said, ‘John, I don’t know how to deal with this,” the detectives quoted Giandelone as telling them.
Romley said, “Now we even have the defendant indicating that Father O’Brien met with him.”
In Colleary’s case, the victim’s mother, Doris Kennedy, 69, said O’Brien berated and threatened her.
“I’ve waited a long time for justice to come about,” said Kennedy, 69, whose son, Mark, 34, says he was molested several times by Colleary in the late 1970s. “There’s been a lot of pain behind us.”
At a news conference, Kennedy accused O’Brien of covering up her son’s case and others and called for the bishop’s resignation.
“I think the bishop should step down,” she said. “He should resign for the good of the church. He is tearing down everything.”
Romley said his staff will meet next week to begin discussing what he calls “the next stage” of his investigation. He said investigators will choose which cases, from among a half-dozen potential ones, to pursue.
O’Brien acknowledged last month that “about 50” priests, brothers or church employees have been accused of criminal sexual misconduct with minors in the Phoenix Diocese during the past 30 years.
“This is almost a death by a thousand cuts,” Romley said. “Why aren’t they just addressing all of these things and closing that chapter? Whether it is new leadership, whether it is ferreting out of these individuals, I don’t know. But somehow they have to acknowledge there have been problems in the church and move on.”