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Phoenix Bishop Spared Prison for Leaving Crash Scene

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 jail.

After his arrest last June, Bishop O'Brien, 68, resigned from his leadership role in the diocese, a post he had held since 1981.

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 charged.

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.

Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests