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Phoenix DA Misses Chance to Make a Difference

by David Clohessy, National Director of SNAP
June 7, 2003

County Attorney Rick Romley is clearly conscientious and hard working. He's deeply concerned about children and deserves the gratitude of Maricopa County parents and taxpayers. But, at the same time, he's missed a rare opportunity to really make a difference.

For nearly 20 years, those seeking to reform America's Catholic bishops have tried a wide range of approaches: public disclosures, media exposes, civil lawsuits, monetary settlements, and new written policies on abuse. Sadly, these strategies have produced very limited change, and even then only after painstaking persistence.

Romley could have done something different. He could have set an example for prosecutors and lawmakers alike to follow. He could have pressed criminal charges against a sitting American Catholic prelate. But he chose not to.

Romley's explanation for his choice sounds logical, on its face. Unfortunately, it doesn't square with history. History shows that bishops virtually never relinquish their power.

His agreement with Bishop Thomas J. O'Brien, while groundbreaking in some respects, is grounded in several myths that need to be dispelled.

The notion that Bishop O'Brien's role in overseeing the diocese is, at best, naive. Because of this agreement, the bishop surely won't actually sit in the room when victims come to disclose their painful secrets. But he could easily be in the next room, and repeatedly consult with his staffers throughout the conversation.

A"Special Advocate" who will handle claims of abuse in the diocese from now on is a very old canard. Rest assured, this advocate will be hand picked to serve, first and foremost, the needs of the diocese. Many dioceses appointed clerics or other chancery office insiders to positions like this long ago.

But let's be optimistic and charitable. Let's assume Bishop O'Brien really honors this portion of the agreement, turning over the handling of sexual abuse claims to one of his subordinates. Is there any reason to believe his long time deputy and fellow cleric will handle abuse cases in a better or in a different manner? As we survey the actions of church leaders across the country on this issue, we see remarkable uniformity: deny, minimize, stonewall.

What Romley must understand is that it matters less to whom victims report their abuse. It matters more where they report their abuse. If it's a chancery office, chances are that bias and secrecy prevail. If it's a police department or prosecutor's office, chances are that objectivity and justice prevail.

Instead of worrying about Bishop O'Brien's future role in allegations of abuse by priests, Attorney Romley should focus in on the real cause of continued abuse of children in the church: the absence of civil authorities in the process of investigations of abuse allegations.

When a victim contacts a church employee, a vague, secretive cleric-dominated process begins. At best, it involves well intentioned amateurs (volunteers on diocesan review boards, including some lay people) do the best they can. At worst, it involves the accused priest being judged (at least in part) by his brother priests and in accordance with bishop-devised Vatican-approved rules that bend over backwards to protect the reputation of a cleric.

It's not, as some have suggested, about vengeance or retribution or even punishment. It's about what makes children the safest. Two hundred years of jurisprudence tells us that one simple step helps prevent wrong doing: holding the responsible individual accountable. That's why Bishop O'Brien should have been criminally charged. The DA's agreement imposes consequences on the diocese, not on the bishop. That's why it's flawed and won't work to save a single child, or bring justice in a single case of past abuse caused by Bishop O'Brien's criminal negligence.

Put another way: trying to influence church leaders may or may not work. Trying to influence the public, parishioners, victims and their families is a better bet. Prosecuting admitted criminal neglect would be a better place to begin.

So rather than try to determine which monsignor victims might see, Romley should have urged victims to see the police instead. He could have insisted that every church bulletin, for post his phone number and urge victims to come to him first. Or to the police. Or to an independent support group like ours.

Rather than try the damn-near impossible, to take away a bishops power, he could have tried to make that power used in a more effective, humane way. The District Attorney instead has placed his own integrity and judgment in question because he let a criminal walk free, with words of sorrow and an alleged commitment to change, but no guarantees.

One can only assume this happened because Attorney Romley didn't see Bishop O'Brien as just any criminal; he saw him as a Bishop who needed a way out to save face and keep his job intact, for all intents and purposes. That is the wrong motivation when the prosecutor in this case had the goods on the criminal and could have seen justice served for the people.

He could have also forced the bishop to join with victims and others to lobby for reforming the antiquated statute of limitations, which prevents prosecutors and victims from using our time-tested justice system to remove and expose sexual predators.

This deal is not likely to move other bishops to make similar admissions. If losing face and bad public relations were a sufficient deterrent, most bishops would have dramatically changed their handling of abuse years ago.

To his credit, Romley's settlement is thorough. It includes repaying the county for costs incurred in the months-long investigation. And it forces the church to set aside funds for victims' sorely-needed therapy.

Furthermore, Romley continues going after the molesters themselves, announcing six more indictments against abusive priests just this week.

In most criminal cases where a deal is struck, in the courtroom or outside of it, victims and their families are consulted to ensure that they support the conclusions of the District Attorney and the deal he has struck with the defense. That did not happen in this case with Bishop O'Brien, and that leads victim-survivors of clergy sexual abuse to continue its distrust of the church and the cozy relationship they often have with public officials like prosecutors and lawmakers.

But he could have gone that extra mile to keep kids safe. He could have gone after a man who admitted enabling dozens of molesters to ravage the bodies and souls of literally hundreds of innocent children.

There are some lessons here for other district attorneys and attorneys general who might be facing horrific clergy molestation scandals and recalcitrant church leaders. Consult with the veterans who've been working to combat abuse for decades. Check with the victims before finalizing agreements with church authorities. Remember that centuries-old patterns die hard. And don't overlook the power of old fashioned personal consequences to deter criminal behavior.

David Clohessy is the national director of SNAP, the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests

Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests