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