When reports of sexual misconduct first surfaced in the Phoenix Catholic Diocese, Bishop Thomas O’Brien promised to lead the nation in ridding his churches of sexually abusive priests.
“No one committing crimes against children will be protected by the church,” O’Brien said in June. “We will do anything we can to restore trust and credibility.”
Several months later, prosecutors are questioning just how much the bishop knew, and if O’Brien himself was involved in a cover-up. The investigation has played out against the backdrop of the national church sex abuse scandal.
Both dioceses in Arizona have faced sexual abuse accusations against priests and subsequent lawsuits. The Catholic Diocese of Tucson reached a multimillion-dollar settlement last January with 10 men who said they were abused by priests as boys. It also named 16 priests identified as the subjects of credible allegations of sexual misconduct involving minors.
The Phoenix diocese pledged to cooperate with prosecutors but has recently argued with Maricopa County Attorney Rick Romley over its response to grand jury subpoenas for records of church employees accused of sexual misconduct.
“What bothers me beyond the actual allegations of abuse by priests is the manner in which the church seems to have handled the situation,” said Romley, who has called the diocese’s response slow and incomplete.
Romley, who is Catholic, suggested it would be better for the church if O’Brien resigns.
Diocese officials admit poor records
The church says it is cooperating.
Maricopa County Attorney Rick Romley has called the Phoenix diocese slow and incomplete in its response.
O’Brien turned over thousands of church documents to county prosecutors. In August, the Phoenix diocese gave Romley’s office the names of 15 priests and other employees, many of whom have already been convicted or suspended because of sex-related charges.
O’Brien also acknowledged in November that about 50 priests, former priests and church employees have been accused of criminal sexual misconduct with minors in the diocese during the past 30 years.
But even officials within the diocese acknowledge the church, which has more than 425,000 members in the Phoenix area and four surrounding counties, kept poor records at the time the abuse cases occurred decades ago, said diocese spokeswoman Kim Sue Lia Perkes.
Romley said he is particularly troubled by allegations that O’Brien advised families whose children said they were abused not to contact police.
In December, prosecutors indicted two men who had served as priests in Phoenix on abuse charges dating back to the 1970s.
Patrick Oliver Colleary, once a priest in Phoenix, was arrested December 4.
John Maurice Giandelone was arrested December 3. Patrick Oliver Colleary was arrested December 4.
In both cases, the victims’ families said they told O’Brien then vicar general of the diocese about specific abuse by priests. They said he urged them to keep silent about their allegations for the good of the church but promised to have the offenders removed from their parishes.
Prosecutors said the accused priests in both instances were transferred to other parishes.
O’Brien said he doesn’t remember the meeting with the family in the Giandelone case. He hasn’t commented on whether he was approached by family members regarding allegations against Colleary.
Perkes said O’Brien would like to discuss things fully, but his hands are tied by grand jury secrecy laws.
The battle has left some parishioners calling for change in the church. Mary Jane Benton, a parishioner from Scottsdale, said she would welcome O’Brien to stay on if he would be more open.
“What’s happening within the church doesn’t affect our faith, it only affects our opinion toward the bishop and the church,” she said.