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A Tough Rap to Shake

By Eileen McNamara, Globe Columnist,
June 18, 2003

The US Conference of Catholic Bishops ought to nominate Frank Keating to fill the soon-to-be-vacant post of bishop of Phoenix. Has the hapless hierarchy of the American Catholic Church ever needed a straight talker more than now, the week it drove away the former Oklahoma governor for having the temerity to say the obvious out loud?

Barely had the bishops finished huffing and puffing about Keating's apt, if indelicate, comparison of them to a bunch of Mafia dons than one of their own got pinched for a felony that could prove tougher to shake than their long crime spree against children. This time a bishop left a body in the road.

Phoenix Bishop Thomas J. O'Brien concedes he was behind the wheel Saturday night when his tan Buick slammed into Jim Reed, a 43-year-old carpenter and father of two. O'Brien kept driving. When police tracked him down Monday, the bishop said he thought the 235-pound victim who shattered his windshield might have been a cat. Some cat.

Of course, straining credibility is second nature to O'Brien and many of his terminally disingenuous colleagues. O'Brien is the bishop who declared ''my conscience is clear'' last January at the annual Red Mass, an increasingly questionable tradition at which politicians, judges, and lawyers kneel alongside guys who could have taught John Gotti a thing or two about evading the RICO statute.

Only two weeks ago, O'Brien and his clear conscience dodged an indictment for obstruction of justice for his cover-up of the Arizona chapter of the national sex abuse scandal. In exchange for immunity from criminal prosecution, O'Brien admitted that, for decades, he too had reassigned priests accused of molesting children to new parishes without alerting pastors or parents of the allegations against them. He ''transferred offending priests to situations where children could be further victimized,'' he admitted.

Instead of surrendering to authorities in handcuffs, O'Brien simply relinquished some authority on paper to operate his diocese of 430,000 Catholics and refused demands that he resign. ''I serve at the pleasure of the pope, not the county attorney,'' he sneered.

Is it any wonder, then, that the bishop felt no civic responsibility to stop on Saturday night and see what or whom his Buick Park Avenue had struck? Is it any surprise that he felt no civic duty to call police on Sunday when a fellow priest told him that he was wanted for questioning? Bishops answer to a higher authority than your average driver, apparently.

When the police finally did bring him in for questioning, the bishop was spared the handcuffs and squired to the hospital for a quick blood pressure check. Maybe that deferential treatment accounts for O'Brien's request that he be allowed to attend the US Conference of Catholic Bishops meeting in St. Louis this week. The impulse is understandable enough. Where else but in backroom meetings with a gang of unindicted coconspirators could an alleged felon find more sympathy? In the rectory, omerta rules. In the courtroom, alas, request denied.

Sadly, it is as much a measure of the criminal justice system's usual deference to the Catholic Church as it is of the church's persistent hubris that the bishop thought he would prevail. For all the outrage generated by the sex abuse scandal, the church is still obstructing investigators by bogus claims of everything from First Amendment protection to attorney-client privilege. No one has fought harder to keep church documents sealed than Los Angeles Cardinal Roger M. Mahony, who took such offense at Keating's characterization of the bishops as mob-like in their adherence to secrecy.

O'Brien, though, may be beyond the usual protections. Bishops do serve their time at the pleasure of the pope, but where exactly this one serves his time could be a matter for that county attorney, after all.


Eileen McNamara is a Globe columnist.
She can be reached at [email protected].

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