Arizona Bishop Held in Hit-and-Run Death

By Beth DeFalco
Associated Press, carried in Fresno Bee [Phoenix AZ]
June 17, 2003

PHOENIX -- The Roman Catholic bishop of Phoenix was arrested Monday in a deadly hit-and-run accident after police traced a license plate number to his Buick Park Avenue and found the windshield caved in.

Bishop Thomas O'Brien, 67, was jailed Monday night. Police said he would be booked on a felony charge of leaving the scene of a fatal accident.

Prosecutors said O'Brien faces up to three years and nine months in prison, if convicted, but they indicated that additional charges could follow. O'Brien's attorney, Jordan Green, declined to comment on the arrest.

O'Brien made headlines this month when it was announced that he relinquished some of his authority in an unprecedented agreement with prosecutors that spared him from indictment on obstruction charges for allegedly protecting child-molesting priests.

In the agreement, O'Brien, the spiritual leader of 430,000 Catholics in Arizona since 1981, admitted that 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.

Under the deal, O'Brien agreed among other things to appoint the church equivalent of a chief of staff to supervise the enforcement of the church's sexual misconduct policies.

In the hit-and-run accident Saturday night, 43-year-old Jim Reed died after he was struck by two cars while walking across a street in the middle of the block. Both cars drove off.

The bishop "does admit that he was driving the vehicle and in the area at the time," said Sgt. Laurie Williams.

Witnesses gave police a partial license plate number from the first car, which led investigators to the diocese, Williams said.

The diocese told the police that it was O'Brien's car, she said.

Police went to the bishop's home with a search warrant and examined the tan car. The windshield was caved in on the passenger's side, Williams said. The warrant called for any evidence of blood, hair or glass samples, Williams said. Williams said O'Brien had told police he was returning home after a Mass on Saturday night. Police had no information on the second car.

After four hours of questioning, O'Brien was taken to a downtown Phoenix jail, wearing his clerical collar. There, Sheriff's Department personnel took the bishop's blood pressure, and it was high enough to send him to a hospital for evaluation, officials said.

After his release from the hospital he was booked into jail.

Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio, the flamboyant lawman who makes jail life tough for inmates by forcing them to wear pink underwear and eat green bologna, said the bishop would be treated like any other inmate should he fail to post bond and remain incarcerated.

"We'll put his photo on our Web site, we'll put him in stripes, and he'll have to eat 8-cent meals like everyone else," he said.

However, O'Brien will be held in "administrative segregation" as he awaits his arraignment. Although he has not been accused in any molestations, O'Brien could trigger the kind of anger many inmates feel against sex offenders who violate children, Arpaio said.

"He's a very high-profile person," the sheriff said, "and I'm not going to put him in any danger."

Monsignor Richard Moyer, the diocese's chief of staff, said the diocese would cooperate with the investigation.

"I sincerely regret reports I have received about Bishop O'Brien being involved in a fatal accident," Moyer said. "The sympathy of all of us in the Diocese of Phoenix as well as our prayerful support goes out to the victim's family."

The Rev. Russell Roide, a priest at St. Francis Xavier Church in Phoenix, said he was shocked by the arrest. "I feel like I've been kicked in the stomach," he said.

A parishioner at St. Francis Xavier, Larry Hillmert, said he would give O'Brien the benefit of the doubt.

"I feel sad for him because he's been under a great deal of pressure," Hillmert said. "If it looked like he panicked and made a wrong decision, he should be held accountable. We should treat the bishop like everyone else."

Some U.S. Catholic bishops have previously been arrested during political protests. And in 1985, the former president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, Archbishop John R. Roach of St. Paul and Minneapolis, pleaded guilty to drunken driving and was sentenced to 38 hours in jail, a fine of $445 and ongoing substance-abuse treatment. He did not resign as archbishop over the incident and served 10 more years.

Monsignor Francis Maniscalco, spokesman for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, declined to comment on O'Brien's arrest.

On Monday, some local Catholics expressed sorrow for their bishop.

"I wanted him to retire," said Mildred Rotell, 86, of Sun City.

"I prayed that God would put some sense in his head and make him retire. If he had, then none of this would have happened. It all just made him sick."

Even some of the bishop's most outspoken critics were shocked by news of his arrest.

"I just have a deep sense of sadness," said Sandy Simonson, an organizer in Phoenix for Voice of the Faithful, a national group formed in response to the church's sexual abuse crisis.

"To have a moral authority in the diocese be investigatd first for hiding child abusers and then on top of that, to have this: Well, it's just a devastating day for both the church and Phoenix."

Sharon Roy, a leader in Phoenix's chapter of the Survivors Network for those Abused by Priests, said O'Brien's resignation is past due. "He's got a pattern of covering up and hiding things and getting away with it, but I don't think that's going to happen this time," Roy said.


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