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 he concealed sex abuse allegations against priests, Maricopa County Attorney Rick Romley said Monday.
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 coverup, Romley said.
O'Brien offered his resignation but the Vatican refused, Romley said.
The deal is extraordinary - both as a personal statement of wrongdoing and as an agreement between a church leader and civil authority that changes how a diocese does business.
"I apologize and express regret for any misconduct, hardship or harm caused to the victims of sexual misconduct by Roman Catholic priests assigned to the diocese," O'Brien said in a statement submitted with the deal.
In a statement released Monday, O'Brien pledged to dedicate "each and every day ... to ensure that we maintain a safe environment for all in our churches and schools."
At least a dozen grand juries have been convened nationwide in the past 18 months to investigate how the church handled sex abuse claims. A few priests, but no bishops and no dioceses, have been indicted. Some of the panels, however, issued scathing reports accusing dioceses of sheltering molesters from law enforcement.
In December, O'Brien disclosed that at least 50 priests, former priests and church employees had been accused of sexual misconduct with minors in the Phoenix Diocese over the past three decades. He declined to identify many of them, and denied their actions were covered up.
On Monday, Romley also announced new indictments against six diocese priests. The prosecutor said that he had not found any evidence that O'Brien himself had molested any children.
Five American bishops have resigned since January 2002 in connection with the scandal, which erupted in the Boston.