Did Phoenix Bishop Go Too Far? O'Brien Accord with Prosecutors Raises Canon Law Questions. (Church in Crisis)

Article excerpt

The agreement sparing Phoenix Bishop Thomas J. O'Brien from prosecution for his handling of sexual abuse allegations against diocesan clergy does not appear to violate canon law, though it skirts dangerously close to a line the church is generally loath to approach.

The key question: Did O'Brien abdicate responsibility for decisions and personnel that he has no right to relinquish under church law? Additional concerns have been raised that the agreement binds O'Brien's successors in ways not permitted under canon law.

Announced June 2, the accord between the bishop and the Maricopa County attorney's office requires the archdiocese to establish a "moderator of the curia" with responsibility for "dealing with issues that arise relating to the revision, enforcement and application of the [diocesan] sexual misconduct policy."

In addition, the Phoenix diocese is required to have a youth protection advocate who will report allegations of sexual abuse by dioces an personnel to law enforcement officials "independently and not subject to the consent of Thomas J. O'Brien, or any other diocesan personnel." The youth protection advocate is to be assisted by counsel whose advice "will not be subject to approval by anyone within the diocese including, but not limited to, Thomas J. O'Brien or any other priest."

O'Brien says the agreement is permissible under church law because he retains the internal authority to deal with priests accused of abuse.

"The new youth protection advocate and the moderator of the curia will scrupulously adhere to the letter of the law in reporting allegations," O'Brien said in a June 8 "open letter" to Phoenix Catholics. "I, however, am the only one who can remove a priest from ministry, and I will do so with the advice of the moderator of the curia and the youth protection advocate."

The agreement "seems to be within the realm of canon law," agreed Mercy Sr. Sharon Euart, "as long as the bishop has the final decision on the status and ministry of the priest." While "the question of the extent of [government] intervention has to be raised when the church is required by the state to establish a particular office," the concerns are minimized when the bishops have already committed themselves to take steps that closely parallel the Phoenix agreement, said Euart, a canonical consultant.

"I don't see any canonical problems with the O'Brien agreement," said another leading canon lawyer. …