Phoenix Bishop Spared Prison for Leaving Crash
By NICK MADIGAN
March 27, 2004
PHOENIX, March 26 Bishop Thomas J. O'Brien on Friday
was spared prison time for leaving the scene of an accident
in which a man was killed, ending a case that had roiled a
Roman Catholic diocese already battered by accusations of
sexual abuse by priests.
The bishop, who avoided prosecution last year by acknowledging
that he had covered up reports of sexual misconduct by members
of the clergy, was sentenced to four years' probation and
1,000 hours of community service. He must also surrender his
driver's license for five years. If he does not follow through
on his sentence, he could be ordered to serve six months in
After his arrest last June, Bishop O'Brien, 68, resigned
from his leadership role in the diocese, a post he had held
He had faced up to 45 months in prison for driving away after
Jim Lee Reed, a 43-year-old carpenter, was fatally struck
by the bishop's Buick as he was crossing Glendale Avenue here
on the evening of June 14.
After the sentencing, about two dozen relatives and friends
of Mr. Reed quietly filed out of Judge Stephen A. Gerst's
courtroom without speaking with reporters. Meanwhile, Bishop
O'Brien greeted his own supporters, many of whom wore badges
bearing his picture and the words, "I love my bishop."
Members of the bishop's defense team said they were pleased.
"The bishop accepts the sentence and will adhere to
the terms and conditions of the sentence," said Patrick
McGroder, one of the bishop's lawyers.
Judge Gerst said he did not "expect everyone to agree
with my decision" and went to great pains to say that
he was not giving Bishop O'Brien special treatment. The judge
said he had studied 99 similar cases since 1999 and found
the bishop's sentence to be typical.
The bishop's community service, he said, must be in the form
of "directly visiting and providing comfort to the severely
injured and dying," including people in emergency rooms,
AIDS clinics, cancer wards and psychiatric hospitals.
Before the hearing, the approximately 120 people in the courtroom
were warned against "outbursts or shows of emotion."
There were none, although the warning illustrated the passions
the case has raised in the Phoenix area, home to almost a
half-million Roman Catholics.
At a presentencing hearing on March 19, the bishop apologized
to Mr. Reed's family for the first time. "I know there
is no one to blame for this but me," he said.
On Friday, Judge Gerst said he had received letters saying
that the bishop had appeared "arrogant, aloof and insensitive"
during his monthlong trial.
"Others said he had difficulty showing emotion in public,"
the judge said. Regardless, he said, it was clear to him that
Bishop O'Brien felt "deep remorse."
Jurors said after their guilty verdict that they had considered
only the few seconds it took for Mr. Reed to be hit and killed,
and not Bishop O'Brien's actions afterward, when he avoided
reporting the accident or responding to calls from the police.
Another driver noted the car's license plate, leading the
police to the bishop's home. Bishop O'Brien's explanation
to the police was that he thought he had hit a dog or that
a rock had been tossed at his car.
Jurors said they agreed with the prosecution that the bishop
should have known he had hit a person and that he should have
stopped to help Mr. Reed. Bishop O'Brien was not charged with
causing the man's death.
Bishop O'Brien has been free on $45,000 bail since being
Even without the accident, it has been a tumultuous 10 months
for Bishop O'Brien, who early last summer avoided a criminal
indictment for obstruction of justice by acknowledging that
he had long covered up accusations of sexual abuse by priests
under his command. He admitted that he had allowed at least
50 priests and church employees to continue overseeing children
for years after it was clear that the men were pedophiles,
and that he transferred suspect priests to other parishes
without revealing their histories.