Phoenix Bishop Arrested in Fatal Hit and Run
By JOHN M. BRODER
LOS ANGELES, June 16 — Two weeks after he avoided possible criminal charges involving his supervision of sexually abusive priests, the Roman Catholic bishop of Phoenix, Thomas J. O'Brien, was arrested this afternoon in connection with a fatal hit-and-run accident on Saturday night.
Bishop O'Brien, 67, was being booked at a Phoenix jail when he suffered a serious elevation in his blood pressure, the authorities said. He was taken to a nearby Catholic hospital, where he was treated late this afternoon.
Bishop O'Brien was charged with leaving the scene of an accident. The charge could bring a sentence of more than three years in jail.
He appeared tonight before Jay Davis, a judicial commissioner for Maricopa County Superior Court, who set bond at $45,000 and ordered him to remain in Arizona and turn over his passport within 24 hours.
The bishop recently avoided possible criminal charges arising from his supervision of priests implicated in the sexual abuse of minors. He signed an unusual agreement with local prosecutors in which he admitted that he knew of sexual misconduct by a number of priests but transferred them without informing their new superiors or parishioners.
The deal stripped him of much of his administrative authority over the Diocese of Phoenix, home to more than 400,000 Catholics. His handling of the scandal has led to calls for his resignation.
The police said the deadly accident occurred about 8:35 p.m. on Saturday near the intersection of two four-lane thoroughfares in northwest Phoenix. A pedestrian, identified by the police as Jim Reed, 43, was crossing in the middle of the block when he was struck by two cars. A witness followed the first car and provided the police with part of a license plate number, a Phoenix police spokesman, Sgt. Randy Force, said.
The police said they traced the car to the diocese and learned that it was Bishop O'Brien's personal vehicle.
A statement filed by the police at tonight's appearance by Bishop O'Brien said that the bishop had been told on Sunday that the authorities were looking for him but that he did not return the call. He drove the car on Sunday to a Mass and to his sister's house in Scottsdale, the statement said.
Officers found the car, a tan Buick Park Avenue sedan, in the garage of the bishop's home this morning when they arrived with a search warrant, Sergeant Force said. The front passenger-side fender was dented and the windshield was shattered and caved in.
"The damage was consistent with a pedestrian impact," Sergeant Force said.
The police have not yet found the second car or driver, he said.
The police said Bishop O'Brien had celebrated a confirmation Mass at a church in Buckeye, Ariz., west of Phoenix, on Saturday night and was apparently returning home when the accident took place. The scene of the accident — in a commercial area north of downtown Phoenix with convenience stores, gas stations and a large empty lot — is roughly two miles from the bishop's residence.
Bishop O'Brien acknowledged that he had been driving in the area at the time of the accident and said that he might have hit something, possibly a cat or dog, or that his car might have been hit by a rock, the police said. After several hours of questioning, he was placed under arrest and driven in an unmarked police car to the Madison Street jail for booking.
The police impounded his car and took the clothing he was wearing on Saturday night.
Detective Tony Morales of the Phoenix police said there was no evidence that Bishop O'Brien had been drinking. He said the autopsy of the victim was not complete and there was no information about alcohol.
The bishop was beginning the booking process when his blood pressure rose sharply and he was taken to St. Joseph's Hospital and Medical Center, the authorities said. The bishop was treated and released this evening, hospital officials said.
After Bishop O'Brien was released, he was booked, photographed and fingerprinted at the jail.
The police and prosecutors said they would book him on one count of leaving the scene of an accident resulting in serious injury or death. The charge carries a possible sentence of three years and nine months. The police chose not to seek a more stringent charge because they concluded from their initial investigation that the victim had been jaywalking and had therefore caused the accident.
"The pedestrian is the party at fault for the collision," Sergeant Force said. "He was crossing at midblock, and it's a pedestrian's obligation to stop for traffic. But the law does require you to remain at the scene. The bishop is being booked for leaving the scene."
Greg Liesse, a lawyer for the diocese, said that he was with Bishop O'Brien at his house this morning and that the bishop seemed upset but did not appear to be ill. He said the Phoenix church was trying to determine what had happened and "see what, if anything, the diocese needs to do so we can do the right thing."
Mr. Liesse read a statement issued in the name of Msgr. Richard Moyer, the local church's vicar general and moderator of the curia. "The sympathy of all of us in the Diocese of Phoenix as well as our prayerful support goes out to the victim's family," the statement said. "The diocese will cooperate fully in any police investigation. No further statement will be made while the investigation proceeds."
Monsignor Moyer is serving as the diocese's chief administrative officer, a position he assumed as a result of the plea bargain struck between Bishop O'Brien and the Maricopa County prosecutor, Richard M. Romley, on June 2.
Under that arrangement, prosecutors granted the bishop immunity from prosecution for failing to report sexual abuse by priests during his 22-year tenure and from any charges of covering up those abuses. Bishop O'Brien acknowledged that he had handled accusations of abuse by moving priests into new parishes, rather than fully investigating them.
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