PHOENIX — A fallout of the clerical sex-abuse scandal that erupted in 2002 has been government interference in the affairs of the Church.
But one instance of that has now been reversed.
Maricopa County, Ariz., Attorney Richard Romley announced May 20 that he was voiding an agreement his office had made with the Diocese of Phoenix the previous May that took away the bishop's authority over sexual abuse and child-protection policies and practices, giving the county attorney's office oversight instead.
The agreement followed a lengthy and exhaustive investigation by civil authorities that revealed numerous cases of sex abuse by priests as well as cover-ups of these abuses by former Bishop Thomas O'Brien and senior diocesan officials.
Romley said May 20 the decision was being abandoned because of the progress made by the diocese under Bishop Thomas Olmsted in addressing sex-abuse issues.
“I do believe Bishop Olmsted is sincere and really wanting to make changes,” Romley was quoted by the East Valley Tribune as saying at the meeting.
The bishop listed a number of safeguards now in place, including revisions of misconduct policies, mandatory training throughout the diocese and the establishment of a Youth Protection Advocate office.
His appointment Nov. 25 followed a tumultuous year for the half-million Catholics in the diocese, culminating in Bishop O'Brien's resignation after he was involved in a hit-and-run fatality.
“Look at how far we have come under the leadership of Bishop Olmsted,” Romley told about 350 participants at the joint summit sponsored by the diocese and the county attorney's office May 20 summit on sexual abuse recognition and prevention. “We have turned a corner. I am growing confident that this will no longer occur within the Catholic Church.”
But if Romley was impressed with Bishop Olmsted's leadership in protecting children from sex abuse, other Catholics are hailing the bishop for his decision making when it comes to a clear teaching of the faith.
The bishop recently suspended Father Andre Boulanger from ministry after the retired priest refused to remove his name from the Phoenix Declaration, a pro-homosexual statement. He was the only one of nine Phoenix priests who refused to remove his name.
The suspension was pursuant to a letter sent to Father Boulanger in late May in which Bishop Olmsted expressed concerns about the priest's obedience. The letter stated that Father Boulanger would remain suspended until he gave the bishop assurances that he does in fact believe Church teachings on homosexuality.
Father Boulanger responded with a letter of his own, arguing that Church teaching on homosexuality is based on outdated science.
Since his installation late last year, Bishop Olmsted has been out-spoken against abortion and emphasized that Communion should not be received by those in manifest, obnstinate, public, serious sin.
Bishop Olmsted was bishop of Wichita, Kan., when he was appointed to Phoenix. He has also served in the Vatican Secretariat of State and as president of the Pontifical College Josephinum in Ohio, the only pontifical seminary outside of Italy.
He said in an interview that the vision he brings to his role as bishop is rooted in the teachings of Pope John Paul II, particularly the Holy Father's 1999 apostolic exhortation Ecclesia in America (The Church in America). An important priority will be education and formation, including incorporating theology of the body instruction in diocesan programs as well as establishing a Catholic university in Phoenix.
His approach focuses on discipline, education and leadership. He replaced key diocesan personnel, including the two vicars general, with priests who were not involved in the sex-abuse controversy. The bishop is also appointing a new head of the Kino Institute, the diocese's center for spiritual formation of deacons and lay people.
He also said he is planning a strong commitment to pro-life out-reach. That was evident from his first week in Phoenix, when he led a large prayer vigil at an abortion facility. He also said much-needed funding for the diocese's Respect Life Office will be restored.
“We are extremely pleased with Bishop Olmsted's support,” said Tom Takash, Arizona coordinator for the pro-life apostolate Children of the Rosary. “He is vigorously leading a renewed diocesan commitment to pro-life efforts here in Phoenix.”
In the case of the Phoenix Declaration, which the nine priests signed before Bishop Olmsted was appointed, the bishop said it undermined Catholic teaching and neglected to state the Church's position on the sinful nature of homosexual behavior. Bishop Olmsted clarified that teaching in a recent article in The Catholic Sun, the diocesan newspaper, titled “The Blessing of a Chaste Life — The Call to Holiness of Homosexual Persons.”
Further, Bishop Olmsted has recently weighed in on the controversy regarding whether pro-abortion Catholic politicians should be allowed to receive holy Communion.
In a press release, he said politicians who are unambiguously pro-abortion should refrain from receiving holy Communion. He also stated that if a Catholic politician obstinately persists in his pro-abortion views, “measures beyond those of moral persuasion would be needed.
Bishop Olmsted's strong leadership seems to have brought a new sense of hope and renewal to the Catholic community.
“I have had the pleasure of working with Bishop Olmsted for the past four years,” said Terry Barber, head of St. Joseph's Communications. “His leadership for the Midwest Family Conference has been great. His leadership in the Church gives me hope for the future of the Catholic Church in America.”
Mark Henry and Alyssa Henry write from Phoenix.