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Bishop Sentenced to 4 Years of Probation in Hit-and-Run

The Phoenix prelate is also ordered to perform 1,000 hours of service in the community for leaving the scene of a fatal accident.

March 27, 2004|From Associated Press

PHOENIX — Bishop Thomas O'Brien was sentenced to four years on probation Friday for a hit-and-run that killed a pedestrian and ended the church leader's career as head of the Phoenix diocese.

In addition to probation, O'Brien, 68, was ordered to perform 1,000 hours of community service, including hospital visits to severely injured and dying people. His driver's license was suspended for five years. The clergyman could have gotten as much as three years and nine months behind bars.

Superior Court Judge Stephen Gerst said the conviction alone was a significant punishment for a public figure like O'Brien.

"He will bear the quiet glances and whispers of others for the rest of his life," Gerst said.

O'Brien, who declined to comment at the courthouse after the hearing, smiled as he hugged friends and relatives after the sentence was read.

Outside his home, he told a local radio station that he got "a good sentence."

His attorney, Patrick McGroder, said the bishop appeared relieved. "Now he can go back to devoting his life to other things," McGroder said.

"Justice was served to an innocent man," added O'Brien's sister, Jeanne Dearing, who wore a button with the bishop's photo on it and the words "I love my bishop."

She also expressed her sorrow for the family of victim Jim Reed, whose relatives left the courthouse without commenting.

Maricopa County's chief prosecutor, Rick Romley, said Gerst sent a message that prominent people will be treated differently by the court system.

"The fact that Bishop O'Brien is humiliated and may suffer the whispers of embarrassment of his fellow citizens offers little solace to the children, the mother and extended family of Jim Reed," Romley said.

Prosecutors had asked that the retired bishop be sentenced to six months in jail.

Gerst spent more than an hour explaining how he decided O'Brien's sentence, saying he examined 99 similar cases. He said the case was about the bishop failing his responsibility as a driver, noting that he wasn't impaired or speeding.

Gerst also said he considered O'Brien's age, character, health and mental state.

O'Brien was found guilty in February of leaving the scene of the accident that killed Reed, 43. He claimed he thought he had hit a dog or that a rock had struck his windshield. He said he did not know he hit a person.

Last week, O'Brien apologized to Reed's family in court, saying: "I know there is no one to blame for this but me."

O'Brien led the diocese's nearly 480,000 Roman Catholics for 21 years, but stepped down in June after his arrest in the crash.

Just weeks prior to the accident, prosecutors announced that O'Brien had struck a deal to avoid prosecution on obstruction charges for protecting child-molesting priests. Under the deal, O'Brien agreed to no longer handle abuse claims.

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