Insiders Say Bishop Has Hit End of Tenure

By Joseph A. Reaves
The Arizona Republic
June 17, 2003

Bishop Thomas J. O'Brien likely will resign or be removed as head of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Phoenix in the next few weeks.

Church insiders say the bishop's ability to lead has been undermined by his questionable judgment in two moral crises this month.

O'Brien, a shy, gentle man charged with guiding the spiritual journey of 480,000 Catholics in the Phoenix Diocese, instead led them through a year of turmoil that climaxed Monday when he was arrested on suspicion of leaving the scene of a fatal hit-and-run accident.

Police said say O'Brien, a priest for 42 years, left a dying man in the street Saturday night and failed to report the accident until investigators knocked on his door Monday morning.

He told investigators that he thought that he hit an animal or that someone threw a rock at his windshield while he drove home from a church ceremony.

O'Brien's arrest came two weeks to the day after the bishop publicly acknowledged covering up for priests accused of sexual abuse.

"We love the bishop and we pray for him. But this is beyond the control of any of us." said Michael L. Clancy, one of about 75 parishioners at St. Thomas the Apostle Church in central Phoenix who attended Mass to pray for the bishop Monday night.

O'Brien was granted immunity from possible criminal indictment on charges of obstruction of justice in return for acknowledging his role in allowing priests accused of misconduct to work with children.

Maricopa County Attorney Rick Romley said the immunity deal was crafted to force institutional changes in the way the Phoenix Diocese deals with sexual abuse, specifically to take away any power by O'Brien to deal with sex abuse cases. In doing so, he said, he hoped the Catholic faithful could put aside the doubt and pain caused by a yearlong investigation of the church and move forward to continue a history of good works.

But hours after the agreement was announced, O'Brien began downplaying his admissions and denying he was surrendering any power. The tactics led to a week of dueling news conferences and interview sessions that only created more consternation and concern among Catholics.

Just as that tumult was beginning to fade, the hit-and-run accident raises new criminal charges and new questions about O'Brien's personal ethics that some feel will force him to step down.

"His position as bishop ended for all intents and purposes when the immunity agreement was announced," said Michael C. Manning, who was O'Brien's attorney until December.

"This most recent terrible tragedy is just going to accelerate the inevitable - that is, his resignation or removal as bishop."

Under church law, only the pope can accept a bishop's resignation. The Vatican refused earlier this year to let O'Brien step down before admitting his role in protecting sexually abusive priests.

Church insiders said a key reason the Vatican refused O'Brien's request was to avoid creating the impression that he was forced out by civil authorities.

But the latest situation, involving criminal charges and concerns about his handling of a fatal accident, radically change the equation.

The diocese referred calls to the Vatican's representative in Washington, D.C.

Calls and faxes to the office were not returned Monday.

"I think he is a strong leader, but I think if there was a way for him to step down, I'm sure he would, if the pope would let him," said former Gov. Rose Mofford, a Catholic.

The Vatican could accept O'Brien's resignation for health reasons. Friends and aides say his health has deteriorated under the stress of the yearlong criminal investigation.

The bishop was hospitalized Monday after nurses who were examining him for his criminal booking discovered his blood pressure was dangerously high.

"It's not out of the question that we could see an administrator appointed to take over for the bishop," said a senior church adviser, who requested anonymity.


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