Phoenix Bishop Thomas O’Brien on Saturday acknowledged for the first time publicly that about 50 priests, former priests and church employees have been accused of criminal sexual misconduct with minors in the Phoenix Diocese during the past 30 years.
O’Brien also said the diocese has paid close to $2 million to settle “12 to 15” lawsuits involving sexual abuse or sexual harassment since he became bishop in 1982.
The twin revelations, by far the most-detailed accounting of the lingering sex-abuse scandal in the diocese, came in response to questions The Arizona Republic submitted to the bishop 17 days ago.
Until Saturday, O’Brien had refused to reveal the scope of sexual misconduct in the diocese.
Parishioners learned of the revelations at evening Masses when a letter from O’Brien was read from the pulpit.
The letter “came across to me as a full disclosure of what has been going on, and it explained what the church has done about it and what they are going to do to prevent it from happening again, both from a financial and religious perspective,” Chuck Buckleman, 59, said after Mass at Blessed Sacrament Church in Scottsdale.
O’Brien did not identify any of the accused, saying he was prevented from doing so because a grand jury is investigating the church’s handling of sex-abuse allegations.
But he said the numbers included church employees already convicted or acquitted, as well as “a large number” of “priests, teachers, coaches, janitorial employees, maintenance workers and lay ministers” who were accused of sex-related offenses that investigators later found to be “untrue or meritless.”
He held a news conference in June to identify eight priests accused of child molestation, but otherwise he has acknowledged abuse allegations only when they became public in the media.
Maricopa County Attorney Rick Romley, who ordered an investigation of the church handling of the sex-abuse allegations in May, seemed surprised that O’Brien said up to 50 church employees had been accused.
Romley refused to discuss specific numbers.
“All I will say is I appreciate the public information,” Romley said Saturday. “That will help us with our investigation.”
Paul Pfaffenberger, organizer of the Phoenix chapter of SNAP, the Survivors’ Network of those Abused by Priests, also welcomed O’Brien’s announcement but expressed concern about the timing.
“From June until a few weeks ago, the diocese was under a charter written in Dallas that said priests would be permanently removed from ministry for even a single act of sexual abuse with a minor,” Pfaffenberger said. “I hope the bishop has not used the recent revisions to this charter to abdicate his responsibility to make the priesthood safe for children. The timing makes you wonder.”
O’Brien reiterated Saturday his long-standing claim that “protection of children, parishioners and priests who were faithful to their vows is one of my highest priorities.”
The Republic submitted nine questions to O’Brien on Oct. 23, four days after the Vatican ordered revisions in the charter designed to ensure legal rights of accused priests.
O’Brien’s spokeswoman, Kim Sue Lia Perkes, said it took more than two weeks to compile the data and for the bishop and his attorneys to approve the release of the information. The timing had nothing to do with the revisions to the charter, which will be considered this week when the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops meets in Washington.
The Republic’s questions were prompted by the candor of Cardinal William Keeler in Baltimore. Keeler made national headlines Sept. 25 when he sent a letter to all 180,000 Catholic households in the Archdiocese of Baltimore detailing the extent of sexual abuse by priests since the 1930s. Keeler released the names and complete professional history of 57 priests accused of sexual abuse. He also revealed that the archdiocese spent $5.6 million settling lawsuits.
The Archdiocese of Baltimore is roughly the size of the Phoenix Diocese. Phoenix has 425,525 registered Catholics compared with 497,424 in the Archdiocese of Baltimore.
However, Baltimore has 449 diocesan and religious priests compared with just 252 in Phoenix.
Another difference: The 57 names in Baltimore were all priests. The number of “about 50” in Phoenix did not specify the numbers of priests, former priests and church employees.
The Republic wrote O’Brien on Oct. 23 asking if he would follow Keeler’s lead “and release a comprehensive list of priests, brothers and church employees accused in the Phoenix Diocese.”
In his written reply, received Saturday afternoon, O’Brien said he was prevented from releasing names of the accused because the church is being investigated by a grand jury, proceedings that are secret under Arizona law.
In response to a question asking how many priests or church employees have been accused of sexual abuse with minors, the bishop wrote: “Over 30 years, that list includes files on about 50 people,” including a number of priests who “never were Phoenix Diocese priests.”
O’Brien was asked how much the diocese has paid since he became bishop in “legal settlements, attorneys fees, counseling and other expenses involved with sexual-misconduct cases.”
“We do not have a database for all settlements dating as far back as 1982,” he wrote. “However, we do know that these settlements, over 20 years, total less than $2 million.”
O’Brien said funds came from insurance carriers “and chancery assessments.”
None of the money came from charity appeals or regular collections. At their meeting in Dallas, the nation’s bishops urged an end to confidential agreements and encouraged victims to go public.
Pfaffenberger said O’Brien needs to be more aggressive implementing that policy.
“SNAP will be asking the bishop to rescind all confidentiality agreements made in exchange for diocesan money,” he said.