In particular, O'Brien, 67, promised to delegate his authority in sexual abuse cases to two new administrators: a "moderator of the curia" -- roughly equivalent to a chief of staff -- and a "youth protection advocate." According to the agreement, they are responsible for reporting allegations to the police and enforcing the diocese's sexual misconduct policy.
Romley said that if O'Brien, or his successors as bishop, intervene in the handling of priests accused of sexually abusing minors or the priests' alleged victims, the prosecutor's office has the right to reopen the case and bring criminal charges.
"I've got the hammer over his head forever. He signed on behalf of the church," Romley said in a telephone interview.
Some Catholic lawyers, however, questioned whether O'Brien had the right to sign away the powers of the bishop's office, and whether such an arrangement would be constitutional.
"A bishop of the Roman Catholic Church does not have the power to permanently redefine the powers of a bishop. He can agree himself not to do something, but he can't bind his successors to do something that is contrary to Roman Catholic canon law," said Patrick J. Schiltz, dean of the law school at the University of St. Thomas in Minneapolis.
"A specific plea agreement would not necessarily raise a constitutional problem. But an agreement that carries beyond Bishop O'Brien, that applies generally to the office of bishop in that diocese . . . is starting to edge toward the constitutional line if not going beyond it," said Douglas W. Kmiec, dean of the Catholic University law school in Washington.
An immunity agreement intended to bring an end to the lingering sex abuse scandal in the Phoenix Diocese turned instead into another dramatic showdown Monday between Bishop Thomas J. O'Brien and County Attorney Rick Romley.The bishop and prosecutor took sharply differing stands about the meaning of the agreement, which is believed to be the first negotiated by a senior Catholic Church leader to avoid possible criminal indictment in connection with covering up sexual abuse.
O'Brien insisted that a key 82-word statement he signed in return for immunity from prosecution fell far short of an admission that he covered up sex crimes by priests in the Phoenix Diocese and endangered children."I certainly never intentionally placed a child in harm's way," O'Brien said at a news conference Monday afternoon. "To suggest a cover-up is just plain false. I did not oversee decades of wrongdoing."
Romley reacted angrily to the bishop's remarks. "Is he revising history?" Romley said. "Did the bishop fail to understand the confession he was signing? Did he fail to understand that he needed immunity? If he continues to lie about everything, I'll have to consider whether or not that's a breach of our agreement."