Unable to govern itself, the Catholic diocese of Phoenix must now share governance with the state. To skirt a felony conviction for obstruction of justice, Phoenix Bishop Thomas J. O’Brien agreed this week to farm out some of his governing powers to state-supervised officials. Could the arrangement be more farcical? Here we have a bishop Arizona authorities consider a de facto felon entrusting parts of his office to the state while he trudges off to Confirmations and other “ceremonial” functions prosecutors deem safe enough to allow him.
Far better to let Caesar into the office of bishop than for a bad bishop to exit it, vogue ecclesiastical reasoning apparently goes. No future Edward Gibbon of church history should neglect this historic and humiliating episode, which appears to worsen by the day. O’Brien has added a new scene to the farce by appearing to break his back-saving deal with prosecutors.
The deal required that he admit the following: “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 supervisor 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.”
No sooner had O’Brien made this admission than he basically disavowed it. “To suggest a cover-up is just plain false. I did not oversee decades of wrongdoing,” O’Brien said after his agreement with prosecutors was announced. Arizona prosecutor Richard Romley, who should have known better than to cut a deal with a Clintonian casuist, is furious at O’Brien. “Is he revising history?” Romley is quoted as saying. “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.”
Romley says he had plenty of evidence to convict O’Brien but chose the unusual power-sharing immunity agreement because it was the “only way to ensure real change.” Judging from O’Brien’s snookering of him, how much change does he expect?
“My primary objective during this entire investigation was to have the abuse stopped, and to make sure there were adequate controls in place that it would not happen again,” Romley has said. So the state no longer considers a bishop and the structure of a Catholic diocese an adequate control against crime? And church officials consent to this conclusion? Unbelievable.
Will someone at the Vatican please explain to Catholics — who respect its authority but are sincerely puzzled by its passivity — how telling the O’Briens of the American church not to resign protects its integrity and autonomy? Church officials didn’t want to cave to undue pressure from the state? Well, that’s now what they’ve got: the state peering into the office of bishop because church officials wouldn’t let a bad one leave it.
On Tuesday’s “O’Reilly Factor,” a Catholic professor surmised that the Vatican wanted O’Brien to clean up his own “mess.” If that’s true, the reasoning is mind-bogglingly reckless. Did Ken Lay get to clean up his own mess? How could it be in the interests of the victims of a mess to let the mess-maker take a crack at cleaning it up? Having O’Brien clean up his own mess makes about as much sense as elevating Jayson Blair to ombudsman at the New York Times.
The church isn’t a corporation, it’s said frequently in defense of lower standards for bishops. Which is true. It is far more important than a corporation. And that’s why standards of accountability should be raised, not lowered, for bishops.
When a bishop makes a financial mess, the Vatican has no problem asking for his resignation. Why the hesitation about doctrinal and legal messes?
“A diocesan Bishop who, because of illness or some other grave reason, has become unsuited for the fulfillment of his office, is earnestly requested to offer his resignation from office,” say Canon Law. By not following its own law, the Catholic Church invites the intrusion of the state’s.
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