PHOENIX, June 2 (UPI) -- The bishop of the Phoenix Diocese of the Roman Catholic Church has agreed under threat of indictment to give county prosecutors an unprecedented and powerful role in the church's handling of complaints about sexual abuse by priests, it was announced Monday.
Bishop Thomas O'Brien was not charged with obstructing justice or any other offense in connection with a number of alleged sexual abuse incidents in which he conceded he had knowledge. In return, he agreed with Maricopa County Attorney Rick Romley to institute a program of oversight within the diocese to prevent further instances in which young parishioners are sexually molested or otherwise abused by priests.
"I'm hoping this will be a pivotal turning point for the church," Romley said Monday in announcing the agreement that effectively strips O'Brien of any authority to handle complaints against the diocese's clergy.
Future complaints will be brought to the attention of a curia -- a special counsel -- that Romley said would not be subject to the approval of the church nor would it be under the church's control. The counsel will be authorized as well as required to report any complaints directly to the county attorney.
"Bishop O'Brien is out of the picture," Romley declared. "If he comes into the picture again, there is a material breach. The agreement then becomes null and void and I can bring charges. If the bishop plays any role anymore, I can bring charges."
Under the terms of the agreement, O'Brien admitted that he buried dozens of allegations of sexual abuse within the diocese. While the bishop was not criminally charged, six priests were indicted on sexual abuse charges Monday and Romley said in no uncertain terms that O'Brien could have been charged with obstruction of justice.
No evidence that O'Brien was directly involved in sexual misconduct was found, Romley said. One complaint made against the 67-year-old bishop was found to be without merit.
Romley declined to speculate on the constitutional aspects of the agreement, but he called the deal a good one despite reporters' questions as to why O'Brien should both escape prosecution and remain in his job as the head of the diocese that includes nearly a half-million parishioners.
Romley said O'Brien was under a papal order not to resign if indicted, and probably would have only received probation if convicted. As a result, the status quo would be largely maintained in Phoenix because a judge would not have the authority to order the reforms Romley wanted.
"I had to force a change, and that's what I tried to do with this agreement," Romley explained. "We move the bishop out of the role, provide input into their protocol on how they deal with these situations and provide training for diocesan personnel."
Romley said his decision to strike a deal was influenced by the Vatican's past responses to the tainting of high-ranking church officials. Pope John Paul II did at first not accept Boston's Cardinal Bernard Law's resignation last year due to what some church analysts concluded was Rome's reluctance to appear as though the church was giving in to a civil authority. Law eventually was allowed to step down.
The diocese had no immediate comment on the agreement Monday, however Romley predicted that additional victims of abuse in years past might be encouraged to come forward once they realized they did not have to fear being stonewalled by the diocese.
He also volunteered the idea that the church itself might be able to make a new start in regaining the confidence of its members.
"Clearly with his (O'Brien's) statement that this has been going on for some time and he has known and failed to come clean is very troubling," he said. "It has been very difficult to get to this stage and I am hoping that the church changes."
(Reported by Hil Anderson in Los Angeles)