Wednesday, June 18, 2003

O'Brien resigns; Santa Fe archbishop appointed to help troubled Phoenix diocese

Associated Press
Jun. 18, 2003 06:38 AM

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) - The Vatican has appointed Archbishop Michael Sheehan, the leader of New Mexico's largest Catholic diocese, to help the troubled Diocese of Phoenix through its latest scandal.

The Archdiocese of Santa Fe made the announcement early Wednesday after Pope John Paul II accepted the resignation of Bishop Thomas O'Brien of Phoenix, who has been charged with leaving the scene of a fatal accident.

Sheehan was informed of his new responsibilities during a telephone call Tuesday from Archbishop Gabriel Montalvo, the Vatican's ambassador to the United States.

As apostolic administrator, Sheehan has been granted full authority over the Diocese of Phoenix until the Vatican appoints a new bishop.

Sheehan was traveling to Phoenix on Wednesday, said Celine Radigan, a spokeswoman for the Archdiocese of Santa Fe. It was not immediately clear how long Sheehan would stay.

"I know he's going to spend half his time there and half his time here," she said. "Right now, we're just trying to find out details."

Sheehan, who is celebrating his 10th year with the Archdiocese of Santa Fe, will remain the archbishop of Santa Fe while assisting the church in Phoenix.

Sheehan said in a statement that his heart goes out to the clergy and Phoenix's Catholic community.

"You have suffered greatly these last few months. I hope to bring healing," he said. "God's grace will help us through this challenging time."

O'Brien, 67, was charged Tuesday after police investigating a weekend hit-and-run traced a license plate number to the bishop's car and found the windshield caved in.

The bishop told police he thought he had hit a dog or a cat or that someone had thrown a rock at his vehicle. The bishop didn't report the accident, but prosecutors say he attempted to have his windshield fixed.

Prosecutors said the charge against O'Brien wouldn't affect a landmark agreement announced two weeks ago in which the bishop relinquished some of his authority, sparing him from obstruction charges for protecting priests accused of child molestation.

O'Brien had admitted he allowed priests to work with minors after he knew of sexual misconduct allegations against them, and that he transferred them to ministries without telling their new supervisors.

The Vatican didn't give a specific reason Wednesday for O'Brien's decision to resign.

In New Mexico, Sheehan is known for his work in leading the church out of a sex abuse scandal a decade ago in which more than 200 children had been victims of pedophile priests here.

During his tenure, more than 20 priests have been removed for sexual misconduct, the archdiocese settled more than 200 claims and Sheehan established a zero-tolerance policy for offenders.

On Tuesday, more than 500 people attended a special Mass in Albuquerque to honor Sheehan for his 10 years with the archdiocese.

This week also marks Sheehan's 20th year as a bishop. He was ordained the first bishop of the diocese in Lubbock, Texas, on June 17, 1983.

Homilist Monsignor Leo Lucero said Catholics here are blessed with an energetic and hard-working leader in Sheehan. He praised the archbishop for steering "the proverbial boat over troubled waters with insight, unwavering tenacity and the courage given to only a few."

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