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Interim Bishop Vows to Back Deal

June 21, 2003|Larry B. Stammer | Times Staff Writer

ST. LOUIS — Archbishop Michael J. Sheehan of Santa Fe, N.M., named to temporarily lead the troubled Roman Catholic Diocese of Phoenix, said Friday that he would abide by a sexual abuse settlement reached between his predecessor and local prosecutors.

Sheehan said he had assured Maricopa County Atty. Richard M. Romley that he would cooperate in carrying out the unprecedented settlement announced earlier this month with former Bishop Thomas J. O'Brien. Phoenix is in Maricopa County.

To avoid prosecution for failure to report sexual abuse by priests, O'Brien had agreed to relinquish his authority as bishop over the handling of sexual abuse cases in his diocese. Cases would be handled by other church officials in cooperation with county authorities.

"I told [Romley] I would work with him, and cooperate with him and that I didn't see any reason to change anything that had been agreed upon before," Sheehan said in St. Louis during a meeting of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. "I think the basic points in the agreement can continue to be implemented in the way it was agreed upon. I don't think it would be necessary to make any changes at this point."

Sheehan said the diocese has already created a $300,000 victims compensation fund, as required by the settlement, and placed another $300,000 into a victims counseling fund.

Sheehan, 63, was named by Pope John Paul II to be the diocese's apostolic administrator and temporarily succeed O'Brien, who resigned earlier this week after his arrest in a felony hit-and-run accident in which a pedestrian was killed.

Sheehan said he saw O'Brien on Wednesday. "Bishop O'Brien is under tremendous stress, and has been for some time. His health has suffered as a result," Sheehan said. "The stress has caused him to not be able to sleep. He's had to have medication for his condition, and he needs our prayers and probably needs to have some kind of hospitalization at this point."

Sheehan said he would commute between the two dioceses until the pope named a permanent successor. "I'll probably be known as the rent-a-bishop from New Mexico," he said.

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