In swift and dramatic fashion, Rome sent Valley Catholics a new shepherd last week, recognizing the mounting crisis of trust had reached the point where its 22-year Phoenix bishop, Thomas O’Brien, no longer could lead.

Archbishop Michael Sheehan, who will preside in the interim, has a reputation for decisive action and rebuilding. But Catholic workers and regular parishioners are eager to know more about him. Many wonder if he will embrace their causes, ideas, agendas and ongoing work in the Catholic Diocese of Phoenix. They also wonder whether the permanent replacement, who probably will be named within a year, will do the same.

“I think the last years have been kind of difficult for people to really focus as much as they normally would,” said Michael Waters, president of the organization developing the future Arizona Catholic University planned near Buckeye.

Waters is among executives of Catholic-related organizations interviewed by the Tribune who, while acknowledging O’Brien’s support for their causes, welcomed the leadership change.

Waters said he has had to talk about the sexual misconduct woes to promote the value of a university.

“Several times I would be talking about issues that did not have to do with fund raising but with defending the church, I tried to point out that this Catholic university would really help with these types of problems because we would have better-educated Catholic priests and religious and parishioners — and that education helps solve a lot of these problems and promotes a lot more openness in the church.”

O’Brien's departure, Waters said, disrupts some fund-raising initiatives as part of the quest to raise $50 million for the campus targeted to open in September 2005 and have 1,500 students by 2010.

“The diocese gave us $100,000 seed money, but, of course, we were looking forward to the bishop to be working with us as we called upon key parishioners throughout the diocese (for donations). He was the one that knows them and could really help us out.”

How Sheehan, who is bishop of the diocese in Santa Fe, N.M., will move about the offices of diocesan ministries and church-related organizations has not been spelled out, said Kim Sue Lia Perkes, diocesan communications director. “I don’t know if he even knows” how he will split his time between Phoenix and New Mexico, she said.

“The truth is that Archbishop Sheehan has not given me his schedule yet,” she said. Other than from media reports, Perkes said she has not heard many requests to hold meetings with Sheehan to talk or air issues.


One group wanting such a hearing with the 63-year-old Sheehan is the Phoenix chapter of Call to Action, which works for social justice reforms in the Catholic Church, including opening the priesthood to married men and to women.

“We’ll let him get his feet wet first, but we definitely will be asking for an opportunity to visit with him,” said M.J. Benton of Scottsdale, a chapter leader. “We will be asking for opportunities to have our voice heard about the qualities for the next bishop.”

Reports from New Mexico’s Call to Action members, she said, is “he has not been very open to them there.”

O’Brien afforded an audience to Call to Action about four years ago, she said. “He was very congenial but couldn’t approve us when we asked for women’s ordination” because of the historic position, in Rome, against such change.

“I suspect he did not want any controversy. ... If we chose to be controversial, he ignored us,” she said.

Benton said she is optimistic with the leadership change. “They have to reassess what the faithful are about,” she said. “If we withheld money, that is one way of getting your voice heard. I am hoping we don’t have to do all that. I’m hoping they sit up and take notice of us.”

Large agencies such as Catholic Social Service of Central and Northern Arizona have weathered the misconduct troubles reasonably well, said its executive director, Paul Martodam.

“We have not suffered a loss of donations as a result of the crisis,” he said. “In fact, our donations have been up since last year, so I think people see the work we do as responding to critical needs in the community and their support has continued to increase.”

With 40 separate programs delivering services from 110 sites and six regional center, CSS has been a program O’Brien strongly supported.

“We briefed him regularly on what we are doing, and he would tell us about concerns he wanted us to look into, things he would hear from parishes,” Martodam said. Reports from Santa Fe are that Sheehan “has a keen interest in serving the poor and the vulnerable folks in our communities and he has a keen interest in Catholic charities,” he said.


Stephen Zabilski, executive of St. Vincent de Paul Society, said O’Brien’s departure brings uncertainly but also “presents new challenges and opportunities.”

“Bishop O’Brien has been a champion of St. Vincent de Paul in its efforts to serve those less fortunate, and we are grateful for kindness and support for so many years,” Zabilski said, adding that he hopes “the process of reconciliation and healing is underway.”

“I would be dismissing and minimizing it in an unfair way to say that this (misconduct scandal) has not caused concern for us,” said John Scola, executive director of the Catholic Community Foundation, with $25 million invested. “It is just something where we have had too tough it out. It has been a distraction.”

He added that a permanent bishop might have new priorities, but he credited O’Brien with helping launch and promote the foundation.

Sheehan, who marked his 20th anniversary this month as a bishop, 10 of them as an archbishop, told an Albuquerque, N.M., newspaper that he has three goals: Creating outreach programs for inactive Catholics, developing lay ministries and recruiting more men to the priesthood.

“He has a good Irish name, which I highly approve of,” joked Eileen Esch, a parishioner of Holy Cross Catholic Church in Mesa. “He sounds like he will be here to listen to the people and listen to their complaints and try to do something about them."

Esch said she did not get that with O’Brien. Three years ago, she submitted petitions with 300 names to the diocese to protest changes her pastor made, including staff changes and elimination of programs. She said she never got a response.

“You were butting your head against a stone wall when it came to that bishop,” she said. “I am glad he is gone.”

Meanwhile at the diocese, Perkes said employees are still stunned by O’Brien’s abrupt departure, but continuing to do their jobs. O'Brien will retain the title bishop emeritus.

“There’s a sense of people needing to go through the grieving process for Bishop O’Brien before they can begin to heal to where we are going into the future,” Perkes said.

And she quipped, “My position is a little freer now because I don’t have to concern myself with checking everything out with lawyers before I breathe.”

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