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Arizona D.A. Romley, Phoenix Bishop O'Brien clash over substance of deal

Bishop denies he's admitting cover-up

Joseph A. Reaves - The Arizona Republic
Jun. 3, 2003

An immunity agreement intended to bring an end to the lingering sex abuse scandal in the Phoenix Diocese turned instead into another dramatic showdown Monday between Bishop Thomas J. O'Brien and County Attorney Rick Romley.

The bishop and prosecutor took sharply differing stands about the meaning of the agreement, which is believed to be the first negotiated by a senior Catholic Church leader to avoid possible criminal indictment in connection with covering up sexual abuse.

O'Brien insisted that a key 82-word statement he signed in return for immunity from prosecution fell far short of an admission that he covered up sex crimes by priests in the Phoenix Diocese and endangered children.

"I certainly never intentionally placed a child in harm's way," O'Brien said at a news conference Monday afternoon.

"To suggest a cover-up is just plain false. I did not oversee decades of wrongdoing."

Romley reacted angrily to the bishop's remarks.

"Is he revising history?" Romley said.

"Did the bishop fail to understand the confession he was signing? Did he fail to understand that he needed immunity? If he continues to lie about everything, I'll have to consider whether or not that's a breach of our agreement."

The sparring came at the end of a day that began with Romley announcing the immunity agreement, a statement of responsibility by the bishop and the indictment of six priests who served in the Phoenix Diocese.

Those six indictments were the result of a yearlong investigation by several grand juries that examined more than 200,000 documents and the personnel records of 70 priests, former priests and church employees accused of sexual misconduct during the past three decades.

Romley said at his morning news conference that the criminal indictments and a five-page legal agreement the bishop signed had effectively brought an end to his investigation.

That legal document gives O'Brien immunity if he adheres to 14 conditions, some of which eliminated the bishop's authority to deal with sexual abuse cases in the diocese.

Other points in the agreement imposed significant financial settlements on the diocese and required the bishop to revamp the church hierarchy by bringing in three new officials.

A moderator of the Curia, the equivalent of a chief of staff, will be named to assist in the day-to-day running of the diocese.

An independent advocate and a new attorney will be hired to deal specifically with sex abuse allegations.

Church attorneys have delivered a $400,000 check to cover those costs.

In addition, the diocese agreed to donate another $100,000 a year for three years to provide counseling for victims of child sexual abuse and to guarantee up to $50,000 apiece for any victims or their family members who request treatment.

Those concessions were coupled with a statement from O'Brien in which the bishop acknowledged he knowingly allowed priests under his supervision "to work with minors after becoming aware of allegations of sexual misconduct."

The bishop further acknowledged in the statement "that priests who had allegations of sexual misconduct made against them were transferred to ministries without full disclosure to their supervisor or to the community in which they were assigned."

Romley said those admissions and other evidence he gathered during his investigation convinced him that he had the evidence to bring a felony criminal indictment against O'Brien for obstruction of justice.

The county attorney said he decided against seeking an indictment only after getting what he considered to be a candid confession from O'Brien and a promise that the bishop would surrender all power to deal with sex abuse allegations in the diocese.

"I could have brought charges," Romley said at his news conference. "But I felt my primary goal was to protect the children. I chose the future rather than dwell on the tragedies of the past."

Early Monday, before Romley released the text of the agreement, three of his top aides met with 16 victims of sexual abuse and their families to let them know about the immunity deal and what it involved.

Several participants said that when the terms of the deal were announced, the victims and their families broke into applause.'

"It was amazing," said Paul Pfaffenberger, head of the local chapter of SNAP, the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests. "Romley and his staff did a phenomenal job."

Not everyone agreed. The county attorney was harshly criticized by many who felt he was applying a double standard if, as he claimed, he had enough evidence to indict O'Brien.

"Why isn't the bishop in jail?" said Father Thomas Doyle, a priest for 33 years and an internationally recognized expert on sex abuse in the church.

"If this happened to anybody else, the perks and privileges of his office would not have kicked in. To see one of these guys convicted would show them they are no longer above the law. That's going to make a big difference."

Michael Manning, who represented O'Brien and the diocese for several months last year, disagreed. He thought the agreement Romley negotiated, and the statement the county attorney got from the bishop, were significant.

"I think he did a good job, and I think he acted very responsibly in a very difficult investigation," Manning said.

Father Thomas Reese, editor of America, the Catholic weekly magazine, and an expert on church affairs, hailed the agreement Romley announced.

"What the county attorney has done with this agreement is to make sure that the diocese cleans up its act, which would not necessarily have been brought about simply by an indictment," Reese said. "This is an unprecedented kind of an agreement because the bishop agrees to allow specific people in the diocese to make decisions in areas where he normally would have the final say."

Romley was adamant that the immunity agreement, and the concessions he negotiated with the diocese, would do more to help the church and the community move past the sex abuse scandal than indicting the bishop:

"Somewhere the church lost its moral compass. This is so wrong. I don't understand how this could happen. They need to get their moral compass realigned and get back to doing the good they have done in the past."O'Brien met with priests from the diocese at a retreat Monday afternoon, shortly after Romley's news conference announcing the agreement.

Several priests attending the retreat expressed shock at the bishop's statement when they first heard the news, but then dramatically changed their minds after hearing what O'Brien had to say.

"The press is taking Romley as gospel," said Father Pat Robinson of Blessed Sacrament in Scottsdale. "We heard the other side of the story and when you compare the sides of the story, they don't match."

Robinson said he and his fellow priests asked questions and O'Brien was forthright with them.

"Romley is grandstanding and hasn't proven anything," Robinson said. "I believe (the bishop) long before I believe a politician."

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Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests
www.snapnetwork.org

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