Bishop Thomas O’Brien, faced with a grand jury subpoena, plans to dramatically change policy and cooperate with criminal investigators looking into allegations of sexual misconduct by priests in the Phoenix Diocese.
“No longer will there be any attempt by this diocese to self-police or determine on their own whether conduct has been improper,” O’Brien’s attorney, Michael C. Manning of Phoenix, said Tuesday.
“That is going to be left to civil and criminal authorities.”
Manning said the diocese will turn over reports about sexual allegations against all church employees, including priests, deacons or youth counselors, going back “more than 20 years.”
That policy, if pursued with the “aggressive openness” that Manning promised, could end some priests’ careers in the Phoenix Diocese. The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops announced last week in Dallas that any priest found guilty of sexual misconduct involving a minor at any time would be immediately removed from active ministry.
“Bishop O’Brien’s decision is to open himself and the diocese for inspection by the county attorney and let the chips fall where they fall. Heads will fall where they fall,” Manning said.
Since 1978, at least a dozen priests in the Phoenix Diocese have been involved in sex-related scandals. Most have been disciplined or left the church.
Manning, known for his high-profile legal battles with former Gov. Fife Symington, Sheriff Joe Arpaio and financier Charles H Keating Jr., was hired by the diocese last month after Maricopa County Attorney Rick Romley announced that he was beginning an investigation of senior church officials.
Romley said he received “very disturbing evidence” that indicated the diocese failed to properly report allegations of criminal sexual misconduct by priests.
A grand jury was quietly impaneled to look into the case of the Rev. Patrick J. Colleary, a Scottsdale priest who was allowed to continue ministering to women and children at Our Lady of Perpetual Help parish even after church-paid therapists warned he was prone to improper sexual conduct. Colleary is on administrative leave from the diocese.
Manning said the diocese could have fought the subpoena, but O’Brien chose, instead, to comply and use the opportunity to highlight what he called a “new day” of openness.
“The bishop instructed us not only to abide by the subpoena but to go beyond the subpoena to a significant degree,” Manning said.
Plea for confidentiality
Included, Manning said, will be details about cases involving possible criminal conduct with minors that have been kept secret because of confidentiality agreements.
“In spite of confidentiality agreements that exist, it is the bishop’s intent to direct us to turn over to criminal authorities anything that may potentially involve an illegal act with a minor,” Manning said.
“No confidentiality clause is going to stop this diocese and this bishop from turning over to criminal authorities anything and everything that involves criminal misconduct. It doesn’t matter if we are talking about a deacon, a priest, a monsignor or a cardinal.”
O’Brien first signaled a new approach to the lingering sex scandal last week in a letter to Romley, which The Arizona Republic obtained late Tuesday. The two-page letter was delivered Thursday, the day the nation’s bishops began their three-day crisis meeting in Dallas.
“Bishop O’Brien is ready to do his part to work with you to repair the wounds and also fashion procedures, protocols and guidelines which will ensure that the parents, children, the public, parishioners and the church are protected against pedophiles and perverts,” Manning wrote the county’s chief prosecutor.
The letter specifically requested that all documents turned over be treated “as grand jury materials,” which means they would not be made public.
Romley acknowledged receiving the Manning letter but was reluctant to discuss details. He said he would do so at a news conference he was planning Thursday with senior church officials.
“Mike Manning has approached us on behalf of the diocese and has indicated the bishop clearly wants to have a new direction as to how they handle these matters,” Romley said.
“I welcome it. Clearly, that is what the people want. They want to know that if a priest or youth counselor or anyone is guilty of sexual misconduct, they will be prosecuted.”
Manning said O’Brien will hold a separate news conference at some point, perhaps Friday, to outline his new policy on sexual allegations. The Rev. Michael Diskin, assistant chancellor of the diocese, is expected to represent the bishop at Thursday’s news conference with Romley.
Vote sends clear signal
At their meeting in Dallas last week, the nation’s bishops voted 239-13 to adopt a charter that requires church officials to report to civil authorities all cases of sexual misconduct involving minors. The charter also called on the bishops to be more open about allegations of sexual abuse.
The Rev. James Margason, a spokesman for Bishop Wilton Gregory, president of the bishops conference, said O’Brien’s policy shift and the overwhelming vote at last week’s conference were clear signals the church was determined to be more candid about the sex scandal, which has festered since the mid-1980s.
Although O’Brien’s self-described “new attitude” comes in the wake of the Dallas conference and after a grand jury subpoena, Manning stressed the bishop has been working behind the scenes for several weeks to change policy.
“We wanted to tell the county attorney that grand jury or not, Dallas or not, that a new, important day has arrived between the diocese and criminal authorities,” Manning said.
“This an important development for this diocese and an important decision by the bishop, a brave decision.”