After a year-long investigation, County Attorney Richard Romley has forced Thomas O'Brien, bishop of the Roman Catholic Church's Phoenix Diocese, to admit what he has steadfastly denied until now — that he covered up reports of sexual abuse of children by priests.
O'Brien's admission, in an agreement with Romley's office that he signed last month, is the latest shocking and sickening revelation in the ongoing saga of the culture of depravity that has permeated many quarters of the church in this country for decades. Several American bishops have tacitly acknowledged being less than forthright in their handling of reports of sexual abuse of children by priests. O'Brien's admission, though tardy, is frank. And it hits very close to home for Valley residents.
Romley on Monday announced indictments against six church officials, including five priests, in the sex scandal. And although Romley has granted O'Brien immunity from prosecution regarding the coverup, the bishop could be prosecuted if evidence surfaces that he perpetrated any abuse himself. He also has agreed to internal reforms demanded by Romley, including hiring a chief of staff to handle sex-abuse cases, creation of a victims' assistance fund, and organizing a summit on eradicating the problem.
Still, it is fair to ask whether that is enough. After all, it has become quite clear in recent years that the shroud of secrecy imposed and enforced by church hierarchy has provided cover for predatory priests. The now familiar pattern of dealing with such cases was to warn victims and family members against going to the police, while shuttling offending priests from parish to parish. Even serial offenders were moved again and again, with little or no meaningful steps taken to keep them away from children, let along bring them to justice.
Having an admission from their own bishop that he, too, participated in this conspiracy of silence should be a wakeup call to the entire Phoenix Diocese. Not only can it happen here, it did. And the man who presided over this sordid litany of abuse and coverup is still the titular head of the diocese.
Will the Phoenix Diocese tolerate as its leader someone who would shield pedophile priests and institutional image at the expense of vulnerable children and justice? The answer will be a telling signal to the rest of the community as to whether the diocese is ready and willing to purge itself of the rot with which it has become infested.
Meanwhile, Romley deserves ample credit for pursuing his investigation in the face of denials, stonewalling and fierce political opposition. His job is to to bring lawbreakers to justice and he is doing that with praiseworthy determination.
We would hope and pray that the diocese itself is as determined to clean its own house.