PHOENIX (3TV) - With the #MeToo movement sparking a social awakening, empowering more victims to seek help and justice the Phoenix Catholic Diocese is still trying to right the wrongs of decades of secrecy and cover-up as they investigate new allegations.
Mary O'Day sent a letter to the Pope in October 2017 detailing claims of being sexually abused in her parish as a child, saying nuns were involved.
"My memories are very clear,” O’Day said.
She implored the pontiff to read what happened to her as a tangible act to help with her healing.
Less than a month later, St. Mary’s Basilica in Phoenix sent her a response, saying her story was a "crime of terrible proportions," they hope it was "reported to law enforcement," offering "sorrow and support” and prayers.
Anne Vargas-Leveriza, also read O'Day's letter.
She runs the Office of Child and Youth Protection at the Phoenix Diocese and met with O'Day in November 2017 as well.
"I've been in counseling for more than 10 years and they picked up paying for it after my discussion with them,” O’Day said.
Diosese response to abuse claims
So, what happens next with these types of claims, when an adult says they were sexually abused as a child and comes forward decades later asking for help?
“If an allegation comes forward, we address it right away. It doesn't matter if the statute of limitations has expired," Vargas-Leveriza explained in an earlier interview.
Nicole M. Delaney, director of the Office of Canonical Services and the Tribunal with the diocese says, “When it comes to sex abuse cases, law enforcement is contacted immediately if there is a credible allegation."
The diocese says they have an independent board that reviews all credible claims of abuse.
The board is confidential.
And the diocese won't say who decides what makes a claim credible, or how they reach that determination.
In O'Day's case, they waited a year and a half after acknowledging her allegations against their Catholic school nuns and paying for her counseling, and only after we started asking questions.
The diocese insists there was no delay, that when O'Day later revealed priests might have also been involved, they then immediately forwarded her case to the County attorney.
The diocese declined our request for an on-camera interview for this story, but released this statement:
“The allegation of abuse by a priest was immediately reported to law enforcement by the Diocese of Phoenix. Out of respect for the privacy and well-being of abuse survivors, we do not comment on specific matters but will continue to assist in the healing of those who have been affected by abuse. The Diocese of Phoenix takes all accusations of sexual misconduct seriously, and fully complies with all laws relating to the reporting of criminal acts against children. The Diocese urges anyone who knows of or who has been a victim of abuse to contact law enforcement.”
Former counsel to bishop gives insight
Mike Manning, former outside counsel to the Phoenix bishop when the pedophile priest scandal first broke here in the Valley 15 years ago, says there shouldn't be a distinction between priest or nun.
“It is magnificently troubling,” Manning said.
"You can't lean on technicalities if you have an allegation of physical abuse," he added.
Parents who trust the church enrolling their children in Catholic school expect the diocese will investigate and report to police any claims involving nuns just as vigorously as any allegation against a priest.
“It’s got to be disclosed to civil authorities, criminal authorities and have those claims investigated. Because as much as I’d love to say we can trust the vetting by the diocese, you just can’t,” Manning said.
“It's not because they’re a bunch of dishonest people. It's because of the mistakes that were made in decades past,” he added.
Manning quit after seven months when he says the previous bishop, Thomas O’Brien, told him to stop cooperating with civil authorities.
“This was the single greatest failure, the single greatest heartbreak of 42 years as a lawyer, not bringing this home to help our community,” Manning said.
He debated staying on, to try and do good from within, despite the new mandate against cooperating with police and prosecutors but said his gut instinct wouldn’t let him.
"If you're going to be a good lawyer for a client, you need to believe in the client's good intentions," Manning said.
Arizona law on sex crimes
Rachel Mitchell, special victims’ chief prosecutor for the Maricopa County Attorney’s office, worked those original priest sex abuse investigations opposite Manning.
She says sex crimes cases are some of the most difficult to prosecute.
Mitchell says priest, nun or any clergy, while the diocese has a legal obligation to report any sex crimes against children, they are not required to do the same for adults disclosing abuse from their childhood.
Arizona’s mandatory reporting law for sex crimes only applies to victims who tell someone about their abuse before they turn 18 even though studies show the average age to disclose is 48 to 52 years old.
"I can understand why somebody from the outside looking in might say, 'That should be reported if you know about that,' and I get that,” Mitchell said.
"You also have to look at it from the victim's perspective. A lot of victims do not want that disclosed, but they do want to get help," she said.
She says our state lawmakers debated and decided against extending mandatory reporting for adult victims because you cannot compel a victim to aid in prosecution and likewise, don’t want to deter them from seeking therapy for fear they will then be forced to report to police.
"They may not have told their spouse. They may not have told their children," Mitchell said.
Manning says while the Diocese of Phoenix might not have broken the letter of the law, they’re certainly not honoring the spirit of the law.
"It is so important to have utter and complete transparency," Manning said.
Telling survivors' stories
The diocese said they are there to listen to victims and will support them if they choose to disclose to the police, but that is the survivor’s choice only.
“Everybody has their own story and that’s their story to tell when they're ready to tell it,” Vargas- Leveriza said.
”We can’t trust the church to tell the truth,” said Tim Lennon, president of the Survivors’ Network of those Abused by Priests, or SNAP.
He lives in Tucson and just came back from the recent sex abuse summit at the Vatican.
“I was really sorely disappointed. I had more hope they would take action and they didn’t,” Lennon said.
Survivors and other advocates like Lennon have helped expose and uncover old church records, some dating back to the late 1800s, classifying clergy sex abuse allegations "a secret of the holy office" to be “restrained by perpetual silence” … “under penalty of excommunication.”
A canon law advisory from 1990 tells bishops where to send incriminating files so the Vatican can give them immunity from civil and criminal investigation.
“Until we break that model of cover-up, no community, no parish is safe,” Lennon said.
SNAP is now working with attorney generals in 18 states to investigate the Catholic church.
“We asked the Department of Justice three different times to carry out a national RICO investigation of the church," Lennon said.
Pope Francis just made a mandate all sex crime allegations at the Vatican must be immediately reported, but only to them.
Another crushing blow to victims' advocates like O'Day, who says Pope Francis is the only one who can compel churches everywhere to report abuse to civil authorities.
"Justice will be when not another child is hurt,” O’Day said.
Phoenix diocese settles sex crimes negligence lawsuit against former Bishop O’Brien
The Phoenix Diocese just settled the sex crimes negligence lawsuit against O'Brien.
O’Brien died last August before going to trial in a civil case, filed by a Tucson man who accused O’Brien of sexually abusing him as a young boy in Phoenix 40 years ago.
[READ MORE: Retired Phoenix bishop Thomas O'Brien dies at 82]
The alleged victim, only identified as “Joseph W.” was also going after the church for negligence and fraud.
No word how much the church paid out to close that claim.
Survivors weigh costs before disclosing
If anyone knows how the court of public opinion is impacting real cases and real victims, it's Mitchell.
Hand-picked to help with the Brett Kavanaugh Supreme Court confirmation hearings, she says there are still a lot of obstacles keeping victims from coming forward and while the #MeToo movement’s improved our social climate in many ways, it also appears to be having an unintended effect on trials.
[READ MORE: Brett Kavanaugh confirmed to Supreme Court]
She says even under the best of circumstances, no cameras, no doubting skeptics sounding off, even the threshold for criminal charges aside, there is a private and very personal battle to balance in what justice means for every victim.
“For some people, it’s getting it off their chest and just saying it out loud. For others, it’s taking that person off the street,” Mitchell said.
The decision to come forward and disclose abuse to the police to seek justice isn’t taken lightly.
“This is not easy for victims. This is a traumatic event,” she said.
The biggest considerations: will they be believed? How will family and friends react to a secret they've been keeping for years? For decades?
Mitchell says without a doubt, weighing a victim’s intangible costs became a major part of the conversation after Dr. Christine Blasey Ford’s public testimony on Capitol Hill.
Mitchell says some victims even worry others might see them as a potential offender because of what they went through.
“So victims now think, ‘If I come forward and say I was victimized, are people going to think that I am going to become a perpetrator?” Mitchell said.
Something she stresses, could not be further from the truth.
“I have seen examples of people who’ve gone to extremes because they are so afraid of that,” she said. "I know of one victim in particular who had her tubes tied so she couldn’t have children.”
She says it’s especially troubling for male victims.
“I think they particularly have that fear, you know, ‘What woman is going to want to marry me? What woman is going to want to have children with me?'” Mitchell said.
Her best advice in encouraging sex abuse survivors to come forward and speak their truth is to know you could be protecting others and that your disclosure could be someone else's corroboration.
“It’s probably not just you. There’s probably another victim or more victims out there,” Mitchell said.
Remember the CSI effect, where people in jury pools were demanding more forensic evidence at trial?
Mitchell says she's also starting to see a reverse effect of the #MeToo movement where some juries are now skewing more skeptical because so many victims are coming out of the shadows for the first time in decades.
If you or someone you know is weighing those decisions, call this 24-hour hotline: 1-800-656-HOPE (4673)
Or click any of these resources:
Summary of the findings from the recent Phoenix Diocese survey on sex abuse can be found at this website.