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 that he concealed sex-abuse allegations against priests, Maricopa County Attorney Rick Romley said yesterday.
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 enough evidence to indict the bishop on charges of obstructing justice but that the deal had achieved prosecutors' goals.
"In my primary objective, I have to do something to protect the children in the future," Romley said.
O'Brien offered his resignation but the Vatican refused, Romley said.
The deal is unprecedented as a personal statement of wrongdoing and as an agreement between a church leader and civil authorities that changes how a diocese operates.
"I apologize and express regret for any misconduct, hardship or harm caused to the victims of sexual abuse by Roman Catholic priests assigned to the Diocese," O'Brien said in a statement submitted with the deal.
At least a dozen grand juries have been convened nationwide in the past 18 months to investigate the church's handling of sex-abuse claims. A few priests, but no bishops and no dioceses, have been indicted.
The only deal that comes close to the one in Arizona was made in December in New Hampshire. Manchester Bishop John McCormack publicly acknowledged that his diocese would have been convicted of failing to protect children from offenders if prosecutors had gone to court.