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Phoenix Bishop Arrested in Fatal Hit-and-Run

Police say he admits driving the car that witnesses saw at the scene. Last month the church leader confessed to a sex abuse coverup.

June 17, 2003|Steve Chawkins | Times Staff Writer

The Roman Catholic bishop of Phoenix was arrested Monday in connection with a fatal hit-and-run accident, just two weeks after publicly admitting to a lengthy coverup in the sexual abuse scandal that has rocked his diocese.

Head of the Phoenix diocese since 1981, Bishop Thomas J. O'Brien acknowledged to investigators that he had been driving a car that witnesses saw at the scene of the accident Saturday evening, said Sgt. Randy Force, a Phoenix police spokesman. He added that witnesses were able to get a partial license plate number.

The car, which had some front-end damage and a smashed windshield, was seized by police Monday morning at the bishop's Phoenix home, Force said.

After four hours of questioning, O'Brien, 67, wearing his clerical collar, was taken to a downtown Phoenix jail. There, sheriff's office personnel took the bishop's blood pressure and determined 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 on suspicion of leaving the scene of a fatal collision, a felony in Arizona. Late Monday night O'Brien posted a $45,000 bond and was released from jail. He declined to answer questions as he left.

Diocese spokeswoman Kim Sue Lia Perkes, who accompanied the bishop, said O'Brien's attorney had advised him not to talk.

O'Brien is scheduled back in court June 25 for a preliminary hearing.

Force said O'Brien wasn't being charged with causing the crash because the victim had been jaywalking.

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

The spiritual leader of about 430,000 Catholics in the Phoenix area, O'Brien has also been a source of disappointment for some of his followers.

Under pressure from local prosecutors, he agreed in May to relinquish some of his authority in return for immunity from charges that he allowed priests who were accused of molesting children to continue working with minors. The agreement with the Maricopa County attorney's office prompted calls for O'Brien's resignation.

"The statement by Bishop O'Brien that he openly acknowledged transferring priests and covering it up -- it's very strong and very unusual," Maricopa County Atty. Richard M. Romley said at the time.

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

"I prayed that God would put some sense in his head and make him retire," said Mildred Rotell, 86, of Sun City. "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 investigated 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."

O'Brien's attorney, Jordan Green of Phoenix, declined comment on his client's arrest.

Saturday's accident killed a 43-year-old man identified by police as Jim Reed. At about 8:30 p.m., Reed was crossing a busy Phoenix street in the middle of the block, said Force, the police spokesman. He was struck by a tan Buick later found to be registered to the diocese. Immediately afterward, Reed was hit by another car. Both vehicles sped away, Force said.

No description of the second car was available, he added.

But investigators followed the Buick's trail to the bishop's home in north-central Phoenix, about three miles from the accident scene.

"He admitted he was operating that vehicle in the area of 19th Avenue and Glendale [the site of the accident] at about 8:30 p.m.," said Force, who added that part of the car's license plate number was jotted down by witnesses who followed the vehicle.

O'Brien later told police that he was returning from a Mass.

According to court documents, O'Brien also told police that he thought he had hit a dog or a cat or that someone had thrown a rock at his car. The documents said that O'Brien had driven the car to Mass on Sunday and to visit his sister in Scottsdale. He also had made a call about having the windshield fixed, police said.

The documents said a priest had informed O'Brien on Sunday night that police were looking for him but that the bishop never contacted authorities.

Reed reportedly had been visiting friends in the neighborhood and was returning to the apartment he shared with his fiancee when he was struck.

Reed was one of nine children in a family from the Navajo Reservation town of Tuba City. He became a carpenter after undergoing an apprenticeship and joined Local 408 of the Southwest Regional Council of Carpenters 16 years ago, said union representative Rick Mills.

"He was a hard worker and put his heart into whatever he was doing," Mills said. "He was an upbeat type of guy, a pleasant guy who liked to joke around with the ladies who worked at the office."

Reed was the father of four children, Mills said, adding that the union would take up a collection for Reed's family at job sites around Phoenix.

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.

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Associated Press contributed to this report.

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