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Louis Untermeyer


The Occasional Muse
My humble opinion on current events

June 8,  2003

Phoenix's Bernard Law - and Bill Clinton

The brobdingnagian headline blared at the top of the Arizona Republic last Monday: BISHOP O'BRIEN ADMITS COVER-UP IN SEXUAL ABUSE CASES. It's a shocking story. The bishop admitted to knowingly transferring priests accused of sexual misconduct to other dioceses without warning local diocese officials or parishioners. He also knowingly allowed priests accused of sexual misconduct to work with children.

Last year, when this story was still unfolding, O'Brien denied all these charges. He continually claimed that he was doing everything possible to protect children and adults from rapacious priests. He did admit that during the last 30 years, 50 priests, former priests, and church employees had been accused of sexual crimes with children in the Phoenix Diocese, where he has been bishop since November 1981. 

An agreement signed with the Maricopa County Attorney's office requires him to give up some power when dealing with sexual abuse cases. The county attorney, Rick Romley, has indicted five priests and one former priest, two of whom are still at large and out of the country, with sex-related charges, and had threatened to haul O'Brien before a grand jury. It was this threat of indictment and a possible trial that persuaded O'Brien to sign the agreement.

So that news hit like a bombshell, and the TV and radio waves were on fire with angry callers and O'Brien supporters. But then a funny thing happened. That same day, O'Brien denied committing any crime. He released a statement Monday afternoon, in which he claimed "it was never my intention to obstruct or interfere [with the county attorney's investigation] in any way. I certainly never intentionally placed a child in harm's way. To suggest a cover-up is just plain false. I did not oversee decades of wrongdoing."

Romley responded soon afterward. "Is he revising history?" Romley asked, referring to O'Brien. "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."

In fact, Romley himself came under criticism for giving the bishop a way out. "Why isn't the bishop in jail?" said Father Thomas Doyle, a priest and internationally recognized expert on church sex abuse. "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." Others hailed the agreement while O'Brien supporters claimed Romley was on a witch hunt against the Catholic Church.

It's hard to see how O'Brien can square his denial of wrongdoing with this 82-word confession he signed on May 3:

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 superiors or to the community in which they were assigned. I apologize and express regret for any misconduct, hardship, or harm caused to the victims of sexual misconduct by Roman Catholic priests assigned to the Diocese."

The word "cover-up" isn't there but what else can you call it? O'Brien kept private sexual allegations against priests under his supervision, allowed to work with children, thus exposing them to potential abuse, then transferred offending priests without telling anyone of the charges. Isn't that a cover-up? Wouldn't that obstruct a police investigation against the priests? 

Not to O'Brien, who has engaged in a full throttle p.r. campaign since Monday. On Tuesday, O'Brien said he was not surrendering any power when dealing with sexual abuse allegations, merely "delegating" authority. "The bishop is still the bishop," he said. "You can't step down. You cannot abdicate. I'm not relinquishing my authority. But at the same time I am delegating. That perhaps is a thin line that many people may not understand. But I understand it, and the people who I delegate to understand it."

In other words, I'm still in charge, Mr. Romley, I call the shots. Don't you forget it.

On Wednesday, county attorneys agreed to meet with Phoenix Diocese attorneys to "interpret" the apparently confusing signed agreement. "Quite frankly, I'm perplexed by some of the bishop's statements," Romley said. "It's clear to me that there is some wordsmithing going on, but I don't believe there can be any doubt about the legal points of the agreement. We will sit down next week and work this all out."

That's when it sunk into me what the bishop was doing. First, he signs this piece of paper that keeps him out of a trial and out of jail. Then he ignores the plain text of the agreement and denies that he did what it says he did. This forced county attorneys back to the bargaining table, where O'Brien will try to get another document that clears him of more specific charges and responsibility, thus limiting his and the church's civil liabilities. Maybe he'll press for immunity from private lawsuits. 

In essence, O'Brien is calling what he hopes is Romley's bluff. If Romley really had the goods to convict O'Brien of a felony, then why press for a signed deal? Romley claims he could have convicted O'Brien but felt no jury would have given the bishop any jail time. Maybe, though, it's because Romley's case wasn't as strong as he implied. If that's true, then O'Brien has the advantage and can get what he wants. 

Today, O'Brien continued his campaign by writing an open letter to parishioners and Valley citizens. He apologized yet again for "any pain or suffering" his "actions" may have caused. He also has "great compassion for victims of any form of abuse." So he feels their pain? He is, once again in case you missed it, "truly sorry that some members of my church, including clergy, have caused harm to children and families." 

He also addressed his "so-called confession of guilt." See, in his mind:

I was not confessing criminal activity. I was acknowledging that we made mistakes. In saying that priests with allegations were moved to other parishes, I was acknowledging that we handled these situations differently in past decades. Schools, families and law enforcement handled these situations differently then, as well. It was never my intention to allow a child to be hurt. And I never reassigned anyone I believed was going to abuse. At times, we made good decisions. At times, in retrospect, we did not.

No cover-up. No wrongdoing. Just some unfortunate mistakes, for which he is very sorry. Exposing innocent kids to pedophile priests isn't a crime in O'Brien's book, just a wrong decision. 

He also includes the obligatory plea for forgiveness. "When Jesus caught the woman in adultery, he told her to go and sin no more. He gave her a new future. I am asking you to walk with me into the future."

So, we have a public figure caught doing something he should not have done, signed a statement admitted doing something he should not have done, then turned around and denied doing what he admitted he should not have done, engaged in a word game with semantics and clever phrases, apologized over and over and over again, admitted mistakes but no responsibility, asked people to forget what he admitted doing but says he didn't do, and now wants to face a new future, free from any punishment or accountability. 

Does this routine sound familiar? It should. Bill Clinton perfected it, turned it into a science, and got away with it. Bishop O'Brien deserves the fate of Bernard Law, who resigned in disgrace for doing what O'Brien has admitted doing. Has O'Brien successfully mimicked the spin master Slick Willie to the point that he also gets away with it? Only time will tell.

One thing is certain. If Bishop O'Brien evades judgment for his appalling crimes in this world, he won't be so lucky in the next.

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