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
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."
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
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
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
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.