Bishop Thomas J. O’Brien has acknowledged that he covered up allegations of sexual abuse by priests for decades and will relinquish some of his power as head of the Phoenix Diocese to avoid possible criminal indictment.
O’Brien’s dramatic admission and his decision to surrender some authority came in a five-page agreement the bishop signed last month when Maricopa County Attorney Rick Romley threatened to bring him before a grand jury, Romley said yesterday.
Romley also announced yesterday the indictments of six current and former Arizona priests for sexual misconduct with children.
Romley said he could have indicted O’Brien for obstruction of justice but decided the settlement with the bishop and the Phoenix Diocese was a better option.
“I chose not to go that (prosecution) route, and it’s a fair debate,” Romley said. “It’s not an easy call. But my primary consideration in this entire investigation is that I must assure that the abuse of innocent children stops and to make sure that it never happens again.”
In a statement released with the deal yesterday, O’Brien said, “I apologize and express regret for any misconduct, hardship or harm caused to the victims of sexual misconduct by Roman Catholic priests assigned to the Diocese.”
Romley said that although authorities are still examining the actions of two other individuals connected to the diocese, “This investigation, by and large, is over.”
Central to the agreement he signed is an 82-word statement in which O’Brien said he knowingly let priests accused of sexual misconduct work with children and that he transferred clergy accused of abuse without telling their superiors or parishioners about the allegations.
Both admissions contrast with repeated denials and assurances by O’Brien.
“No one in this diocese who commits crimes against youths will be protected by the church,” he said last year.
The agreement guarantees O’Brien immunity from prosecution for any criminal cover-up or for failing to report sexual abuse by priests he supervised. O’Brien will surrender some of his authority to three newly appointed officials. He will remain titular head of the Phoenix church he has led since November 1981.
O’Brien wanted to resign as bishop, Romley said, but the pope’s representative in Washington, D.C., denied him permission to do so.
The six men whose indictments were announced yesterday are:
The Rev. Joseph Briceno, believed to be in Mexico.
The Rev. Patrick Colleary, believed to be in Ireland. His case was already dismissed once for legal reasons.
The Rev. Paul LeBrun, who has been arrested in Indiana.
The Rev. Karl LeClaire.
Lawrence Lovell, a former priest from Yavapai County.
The Rev. Henry Perez, now deceased.
In December, O’Brien revealed that at least 50 priests, former priests and church employees had been accused of sexual misconduct with children in the Phoenix Diocese during the past three decades. He declined to identify many of them and denied their actions were covered up.
Seven Catholic bishops across the United States have resigned since allegations of sexual abuse by priests and claims of cover-up by senior church leaders began making national headlines in early 2002.