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Deal Ends Prosecution of Bishop

Phoenix prelate will give up nonreligious duties to avoid counts of failing to report possible abuse.

June 03, 2003|William Lobdell | Times Staff Writer

The Roman Catholic bishop of Phoenix has made a deal with prosecutors in which he will relinquish a large portion of his authority in return for not being prosecuted on charges that he knew that priests who were accused of molesting children were continuing to work with minors.

In an 82-word statement made public Monday as part of the agreement with prosecutors, Bishop Thomas J. O'Brien, 67, said: "I acknowledge that I allowed Roman Catholic priests under my supervision to work with minors after becoming aware of allegations of sexual misconduct.

"I further acknowledge that priests who had allegations of sexual misconduct made against them were transferred to ministries without full disclosure to their supervisors or to the community in which they were assigned."

The case appears to be the first in which a Catholic prelate made an agreement to avoid personal prosecution during the church's 18-month-long sexual abuse scandal. The case also marks a highly unusual instance of secular authorities influencing the manner in which a Roman Catholic diocese is run.

Maricopa County Atty. Richard M. Romley said his office had gathered sufficient evidence to bring charges against O'Brien for failing to report sexual abuse by priests.

But the harshest sentence under Arizona law for a failure-to-report conviction is 2 1/2 years' probation, Romley said. The deal allowed him to achieve more reform within the Diocese of Phoenix than if the bishop had been prosecuted, he added.

Under the agreement, O'Brien will give up authority to two new church officials, Romley said. A moderator of the curia will handle day-to-day operations of the diocese, including most decisions about where to assign priests, and a "youth protection advocate" will oversee the diocese's sexual misconduct policy.

In addition, the diocese will hire a special counsel with advice from the Maricopa County attorney's office who will give independent advice to the advocate.

O'Brien will continue to handle the religious and ceremonial functions of his office, Romley said.

The deal calls for O'Brien to apologize to victims and for the diocese to put $300,000 in a victims compensation fund and another $300,000 in a victims counseling fund. The fund would pay up to $50,000 for counseling to victims and their families.

The diocese will also reimburse prosecutors for their investigation.

During the monthlong negotiations, O'Brien offered to resign, but the move was rejected by Vatican officials, Romley said.

"My overriding objection was to stop the abuse and protect the children of the future," said Romley, adding that 45 priests and 35 other diocesan personnel were part of the Phoenix investigation.

"The statement by Bishop O'Brien that he openly acknowledged transferring priests and covering it up -- it's very strong and very unusual," Romley said.

At a news conference in Phoenix after the agreement became public, however, O'Brien defended his conduct.

"Have I committed a crime? No," he said. "Many of the allegations

"It was never my intention to obstruct or interfere in any way. I certainly never intentionally placed a child in harm's way."

The deal was reached early last month but not made public until Monday. The existence of the deal was first reported by the Arizona Republic in Phoenix.

Six U.S. Catholic bishops have resigned since the current sexual abuse scandal erupted in early 2002. Two of the bishops who stepped down were accused of sexually abusing minors. Two others said they had sexual relations with either an adult man or a woman, and two -- Manuel D. Moreno of Tucson and Cardinal Bernard Law of Boston -- resigned after criticism of their handling of the scandal.

In December, the diocese of Manchester, N.H., avoided criminal charges by admitting that it failed to protect children from sexually abusive priests. In that case, however, prosecutors were threatening to bring charges against the diocese as a corporate entity, not the bishop himself.

Bill Spohn, director of the Bannan Center for Jesuit Education at Santa Clara University, described the Phoenix deal as a major development in the course of the sexual abuse scandal.

"If any [American] bishop hasn't gotten it already, this puts them on notice that there's serious legal consequences to protecting these priests," Spohn said. "To take a huge financial hit is one thing. When it gets personal, that's amazing and would give one pause."

Victims advocates said they thought the threat of criminal charges might change the behavior of some bishops.

"There hasn't been a grand jury or attorney general yet who digs deep into a diocese and says the bishop is clean," said David Clohessy, executive director of the Survivors Network for Those Abused by Priests.

"The hope is that a bishop facing criminal prosecution would have a greater deterrent effect than bad PR and civil lawsuits have had."

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Times staff writer Hilda Munoz contributed to this report.

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