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Phoenix bishop arrested in a fatal hit-and-run accident

Tuesday, June 17, 2003

The Associated PressPHOENIX -- 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 car and found the windshield caved in.

Bishop Thomas O'Brien, 67, was driven away in an unmarked detective's car. Police said he would be booked on a charge of leaving the scene of a fatal accident. Sgt. Laurie Williams said he was not handcuffed.

The bishop went briefly to the hospital before being taken to jail. Neither hospital officials nor O'Brien's attorney, Jordan Green, would say why he was there. Green declined to comment on the arrest.

Diocese spokesman Jose Robles would say only that the bishop "was very exhausted."

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

In the hit-and-run case Saturday night, 43-year-old Jim Reed died after he was struck by two cars while crossing 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," Williams said.

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 car. The tan Buick's 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.

In a statement, 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."

Monsignor Francis Maniscalco, spokesman for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, said Monday that the organization had no immediate comment on O'Brien's arrest.

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.

Some U.S. Catholic bishops have previously been arrested during political protests. And in 1985, the former president of the U.S. hierarchy, Archbishop John R. Roach of St. Paul and Minneapolis, pleaded guilty to drunk 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 another decade.

O'Brien has been the spiritual leader of 430,000 Catholics in Arizona since 1981.

In the agreement with prosecutors announced earlier this month, O'Brien 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.

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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