PHOENIX – The Roman Catholic bishop of Phoenix has relinquished some of his authority in an unprecedented agreement with prosecutors that will spare him from indictment on charges of protecting child-molesting priests.
Under the agreement, Bishop Thomas J. O'Brien acknowledged he concealed sex-abuse allegations against priests, Maricopa County Attorney Rick Romley said Monday.
O'Brien, the spiritual leader of 430,000 Catholics in Arizona since 1981, signed the agreement May 3. The deal guarantees him immunity from prosecution for any criminal cover-up, Romley said.
Romley said investigators had gathered enough evidence to indict the bishop on obstruction of justice charges. However, Romley said the deal had achieved prosecutors' goals.
"In my primary objective, I have to do something to protect the children in the future," Romley said. "This has to change. I had to force a change and that's what I'm trying to do with this."
O'Brien on Monday denied he had committed any crimes.
"It is possible to second-guess decisions that have been made? Yes, hindsight is 20-20," O'Brien said at a news conference. "Have I committed a crime? No."
O'Brien offered his resignation but the Vatican refused, Romley said.
The deal is extraordinary -- both as a personal statement of wrongdoing and as an agreement between a church leader and civil authority that changes how a diocese does business.
"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," O'Brien said in a statement submitted with the deal.
In a statement released Monday, O'Brien pledged to dedicate "each and every day ... to ensure that we maintain a safe environment for all in our churches and schools."
At least a dozen grand juries have been convened nationwide in the past 18 months to investigate how the church handled sex abuse claims. A few priests, but no bishops and no dioceses, have been indicted. Some of the panels, however, issued scathing reports accusing dioceses of sheltering molesters from law enforcement authorities.
The only deal that comes close to the one in Arizona was last December in New Hampshire. There, Manchester Bishop John McCormack publicly acknowledged his diocese would have been convicted of failing to protect children from offenders if prosecutors had gone to court. If he had not signed the agreement, his diocese would have been the first in the nation to face criminal charges.
In December, O'Brien disclosed that at least 50 priests, former priests and church employees had been accused of sexual misconduct with minors in the Phoenix Diocese over the past three decades. He declined to identify many of them, and denied their actions were covered up.
On Monday, Romley also announced new indictments against six diocese priests. The prosecutor said that he had not found any evidence that O'Brien himself had molested any children.
Under the agreement with prosecutors, the bishop will no longer deal with sex abuse allegations against clergy. O'Brien agreed to appoint a moderator of the Curia, the church equivalent of a chief of staff, to supervise the enforcement and application of the church's sexual misconduct policies.
Also, a new independent special advocate will handle the complaints, according to the deal. If the bishop interferes, he can be prosecuted.
In addition, the diocese will pay for counseling the victims.
"If all of the terms of this agreement are not fully carried out, I have the right to go back to court and declare this agreement is null and void," Romley said.
O'Brien said many of the ideas would have been implemented even if there hadn't been a deal with prosecutors.
Under the agreement, O'Brien acknowledged that he allowed priests accused of sexual misconduct work with children and that he allowed clergy accused of abuse to be transferred without telling their superiors or parishioners about the allegations.
"I think it's too bad that this bishop is not going to prison. But it's a start," said Mark Kennedy, who claims he was abused by one of the priests whose indictments were announced Monday. "There are a lot of damaged lives and I don't know how [O'Brien] can live with himself right now."
While the deal is unprecedented, it is well within church law and more palatable to the Vatican than if O'Brien had resigned, said the Rev. Thomas Reese, editor of the Jesuit magazine America.
Bishops often delegate authority to a chief of staff. But the Vatican would consider a bishop stepping down under pressure from a prosecutor as a violation of the church's independence, Reese said.
"There is the fear of the domino effect," Reese said.
Professor John S. Baker, a constitutional law expert at Louisiana State University Law Center, said the diocese's concessions do not appear to violate the separation of church and state. Since O'Brien remains head of the diocese, the civil authority has not dictated who can be bishop, he said.
"It appears the church hasn't crossed the line here," Baker said.
O'Brien said he had made it clear to Romley "that my resignation is not an option."
"I serve as bishop at the pleasure of the pope and not the county attorney," O'Brien said.
The effect on lawsuits against the diocese depends on the evidence released as part of the agreement, such as details of the cover-up, lawyers on both sides of the issue said.
Five American bishops have resigned since January 2002 in connection with the scandal, which erupted in the Boston. Among them was Cardinal Bernard Law, who stepped down as archbishop of Boston after being condemned for letting priests go unpunished.