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Bishop in Hit-and-Run Case Resigns

June 19, 2003|J.R. Moehringer | Times Staff Writer

PHOENIX -- Tainted by scandal and beset by legal troubles, Bishop Thomas J. O'Brien on Wednesday ended his 21-year reign as leader of the Diocese of Phoenix, one day after being charged with a felony in a fatal hit-and-run traffic accident.

O'Brien offered his resignation to Pope John Paul II, and it was accepted with unusual speed, analysts said. In a one-sentence statement, the Vatican announced that O'Brien would step down immediately, in keeping with church law governing bishops unable to fill their duties due to illness or "some other grave cause."

Such bishops, the Vatican statement said, are "earnestly requested" to resign.

It was unclear what official pressure may have been brought to bear on O'Brien. Calls to the diocese went unreturned Wednesday and O'Brien remained in seclusion at his house, making no public statements and seeing only a few friends and relatives. The pope appointed Archbishop Michael J. Sheehan of Santa Fe, N.M., as temporary "apostolic administrator" to oversee Santa Fe and Phoenix until a permanent replacement for O'Brien can be found.

"My heart goes out to the clergy, religious and the faithful of the Diocese of Phoenix," Sheehan said in a statement. "You have suffered greatly these last few months."

As funeral plans were being made for Jim Reed, the 43-year-old carpenter killed in Saturday's hit-and-run, 430,000 Catholics who make up the Phoenix diocese tried to absorb the latest shock wave in a year full of scandal and shame.

O'Brien already had been stripped of many of his official duties, not by the pope but by Maricopa County Atty. Richard M. Romley. In an immunity deal that allowed O'Brien to avoid criminal indictment, the bishop signed a letter last month admitting obstruction of justice and relinquishing all authority in the handling of sexual abuse allegations in the church.

"We tried to create a situation whereby he'd give up being the first responder on the church's part with regard to sex crimes," said Bill Fitzgerald, a spokesman for Romley. "We created another layer -- somebody to step in and protect the kids."

O'Brien had been accused not only of failing to protect children, but also of putting them directly in harm's way, by quietly reassigning known pedophile priests to other churches. "He testified that he moved people around when he found out they were in trouble," Fitzgerald said.

Although greatly embarrassing, the immunity deal let O'Brien keep his position and move forward. He appeared poised to put his scandals behind him, and he planned to represent Phoenix at this week's meeting of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops in St. Louis.

Then came Saturday night.

Police said O'Brien was returning home from a church in Buckeye, 40 miles west of Phoenix, when he struck Reed, who was jaywalking on a dark street near downtown. With his windshield caved in, police said, O'Brien drove off, then failed to report the accident for two days -- even after a priest told him detectives were looking for him.

Reactions to O'Brien's resignation ranged from grim disbelief to "good riddance."

"When you heap horror upon horror, it gets unutterably sad after a while," said Luise Dittrich, spokeswoman for Voice of the Faithful, a Massachusetts-based Catholic reform group. "This is not anything we want to gloat about."

But others applauded.

"This is a very encouraging day for Catholics in the Diocese of Phoenix," said Paul Pfaffenberger, head of the Phoenix chapter of the Survivors Network for Those Abused by Priests, a national organization based in St. Louis. "A leadership change has been needed for some time."

Close friends of O'Brien also stepped forward Wednesday to defend the bishop. They said the picture being painted by police and prosecutors -- an arrogant obstructor of justice, blithely speeding away as a man lay dying in the street -- clashes sharply with the caring public servant they have come to know.

Shy and small, somewhat aloof, a fan of sports and a connoisseur of opera, O'Brien was described by friends as a man with a strict moral code who "doesn't ever lie," according to one confidant.

He should be remembered, friends said, for shepherding Arizona's church through the most explosive growth in its history.

Born in Indianapolis, O'Brien entered the seminary when he was only 13. He became a priest in 1961, his first post a small parish in Douglas, Ariz.

In 1981, when his predecessor suffered a fatal heart attack, O'Brien became bishop of Phoenix. Six years later, he persuaded the pope to visit Arizona; soon after, he induced Mother Teresa to come and inaugurate a local hospice.

It was O'Brien who spearheaded construction of the sparkling new Diocesan Pastoral Center in downtown Phoenix, and he chaired a Conference of Bishops committee that urged parents in 1997 to be understanding and tolerant of their gay and lesbian children.

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