Black & White Collar Crime

By Ellis Henican
June 18, 2003

Jesus was a carpenter, and so was Jim Reed, the 43-year-old father of two mowed down by the "hit- and-run bishop" in Phoenix.

Sounds like Bishop Thomas O'Brien was dozing back in seminary the day they taught Matthew 25:40: "Whatsoever you do to the least of my brothers, that you do unto me."

What the bishop allegedly did unto poor Mr. Reed falls on the far side of outrageous, a zone of human behavior that has become quite familiar to America's Roman Catholic bishops - Thomas O'Brien very much among them.

Sadly, these are men who are leading my church today.

O'Brien had already distinguished himself as a notorious protector of pedophile priests. He moved them around Phoenix like pieces on some twisted checkerboard, hiding their sordid pasts from their new parishioners. So of course, the abuses multiplied.

This unholy cynicism continued until barely two weeks ago, when O'Brien finally gave up some of his duties as bishop in a deal to avoid criminal prosecution.

You'd think he might have learned from his narrow escape.

But now this: On Saturday night, police say, he ran down a pedestrian who was crossing busy Glendale Avenue, leaving the man dying in the street. Instead of stopping to help, the 67-year-old churchman allegedly kept his foot on the gas, continuing on in his tan Buick Park Avenue, its front end damaged and windshield caved in.

When a priest told O'Brien on Sunday night that the police were looking for him - a witness had jotted down "547 HBE," the Buick's license plate - how did the bishop respond? By calling the cops? By turning himself in? No way! He phoned an auto-body shop to inquire about repairs, the authorities say.

This is the spiritual leader of central Arizona's hundreds of thousands of Roman Catholics.

And when the cops finally arrived Monday morning at Bishop O'Brien's elegant home in northern Phoenix, he told the officers he thought he might have hit a cat.

Some cat At 6 feet tall, 235 pounds, Jim Reed was larger than any Arizona cougar.

The Catholic bishops, kids like me were taught in parochial school, are Christ's personal representatives here on Earth. But look at the gang we've lately had in charge.

Cardinal Bernard Law plays hide-the-pedophile in Boston. Cardinal Roger Mahony stonewalls the grand jury in L.A. In New York, Cardinal Edward Egan seems more concerned about pomp than justice or healing. Brooklyn's Thomas Daily is busy explaining how he knew nothing as Law's right-hand man. Bishop William Murphy thinks Versailles has come to Long Island.

No wonder former Oklahoma Gov. Frank Keating left in disgust this week as head of the bishops' National Review Board.

"I certainly have concluded that a number of serious officials in my faith have very clay feet," Keating told the Los Angeles Times. "To act like La Cosa Nostra and hide and suppress, I think, is very unhealthy."

Those are strong words - and from a devout, lifelong Catholic.

By and large, these complaints aren't coming from bitter outsiders. They are coming from dedicated Catholics, who are desperately disappointed with the examples being set above.

The hit-and-run antics push the disappointment another big step along. O'Brien's seeming deception and cold-heartedness sink below the usual weaknesses of sex and grandeur to the truly mundane.

If a bishop would try to hide a traffic accident, how can he possibly be trusted with the souls of the faithful? Can he even be trusted with the collection plate?

As far as anyone could remember yesterday, we've never before had a hit-and-run bishop in the church. And it was the running - even more than the hitting - that put this man from Phoenix in such a jam. After all, his victim had been crossing in the middle of the block. The death could well have been an accident.

"If the bishop had remained at the scene," said Phoenix police Sgt. Randy Force, "in all likelihood he would not have been charged with any crime."

As things now stand, the bishop has been charged with leaving the scene of a fatal accident, a felony. If convicted, he faces up to 3 3/4 years behind bars.

At the bishop's court hearing on Monday night, Superior Court Judge Jay Davis set bail at $45,000. He told the bishop to turn over his passport and remain inside the state.

The defense lawyer asked if the bishop could please attend an important meeting this week in St. Louis.

The judge said no.

This was no surprise.

It's a meeting of the U.S. Conference of Bishops.

And you know what Gov. Keating said about some of them. COMMENTARY

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