Bishop Thomas O’Brien should resign.
Whether he does depends, among other things, on whether he believes he serves just the institutional Catholic Church or the faith and the faithful.
Catholics used to be able to believe all these were one and the same. But it’s clear that not all of us can find it either in our hearts or faith to believe in the unity of these concepts any longer.
This is the biggest tragedy to come out of the church’s sordid sex scandals. But this distinction between church and Catholics and the faith is important to the specific matter of resignation.
If O’Brien clings to the notion that he has faithfully served the institution, he can make a credible case that he shouldn’t resign. That’s because it’s become abundantly clear that bishops or priests who told families of molested children to shut up and go away were simply following accepted church policy.
In practice, this policy put the church, as merely a collection of edifice, hierarchy and image, above the church as a representation and practitioner of beliefs and as a moral beacon.
Bishops or priests who failed to report allegations of molestation to civil authorities were being good soldiers. If they arranged or helped to arrange the transfer of problem priests to other parishes to molest again, they were most probably just following explicit or implicit orders.
But in the end, this is an inadequate defense.
Even in war, soldiers who commit or abet atrocities, even under orders, have not been immune from prosecution. And they never should be, even if on the winning side.
Shielding molester priests to molest again is the Catholic equivalent of atrocity.
Some, of course, will argue that the case against O’Brien has not been completely made.
And it’s true. O’Brien has not been convicted of a thing and may never be. We should note, however, that neither has Cardinal Bernard Law of Boston.
But whether he resigns really has nothing to do with whether he will ever be convicted of criminal wrongdoing. This is a matter of whether O’Brien will ever be able to exercise the kind of moral leadership the local church needs, given what has happened on his watch and past church practice.
In any case, there comes a point when you really don’t need the validation of a criminal court to know that wrongs have been committed.
Two families have come forward and alleged that they met with O’Brien about molestation by priests of their children and that he told them essentially to shut up. He allegedly assured them that the priests would be removed from their parishes.
This occurred shortly before O’Brien became bishop but while he was vicar general of the Phoenix Diocese and pastor at St. Catherine’s in Phoenix.
Both priests, the Revs. John Maurice Giandelone and Patrick Colleary, were transferred to other parishes, where they either molested or are suspected of molesting children.
O’Brien said through his attorney that he does not recall meeting with the family in the Giandelone case. Meanwhile, Giandelone, being extradited from Florida because of the new charges, reportedly acknowledged to county investigators sent to retrieve him that he met with O’Brien.
This indicates that O’Brien’s memory may be more than faulty. In this latest revelation, the molested child grew up to become a police officer.
So this is what we know or can reasonably surmise:
These two families are probably not lying.
Since he became bishop in 1982, the diocese has paid close to $2 million to settle 12 to 15 lawsuits involving allegations of sexual abuse or sexual harassment.
About 50 priests, former priests and church employees have been accused of criminal sexual misconduct with minors in the diocese in the last 30 years.
Altogether, this makes a damning case that the Phoenix Diocese has much to answer for. In any case, it needs to break with the past and with past practices. This is something O’Brien’s resignation could help speed along.
This is not a matter of seeking the proverbial pound of flesh. That’s the county attorney’s job.
It’s about getting on with the much needed work of healing.