- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 17, 2003

PHOENIX (AP) — The prosecutor who struck an unprecedented deal with the Roman Catholic bishop of Phoenix about his handling of molesters in the priesthood filed a felony charge against the church leader yesterday in a deadly hit-and-run accident.

Bishop Thomas O’Brien, 67, who was arrested Monday, could face punishment ranging from probation to less than four years in prison if he is convicted on the charge of leaving the scene of a fatal accident.

Maricopa County Attorney Rick Romley said yesterday he authorized a direct complaint rather than going to a grand jury, because now the case will receive a public hearing to determine probable cause.

Authorities also will keep investigating to determine whether other charges are appropriate, Mr. Romley said.

He said the charge wouldn’t affect a landmark agreement announced two weeks ago in which Bishop O’Brien relinquished some of his authority, sparing him from indictment on obstruction charges for protecting priests accused of child molestation.

“There is no breach by this misconduct,” said Mr. Romley, stressing that the earlier deal achieved his goal of protecting children. “That agreement was not related. This is totally separate and distinct.”

In the hit-and-run case, Bishop O’Brien was released on $45,000 bail late Monday. Bishop O’Brien and his attorney have declined to comment on the case.

The accident occurred after dark Saturday night, when 43-year-old Jim Reed was struck by two cars as he crossed a street in the middle of the block about three miles from the bishop’s home. Both cars drove off.

Police traced a license plate number to Bishop O’Brien’s car and found the windshield caved in Monday morning.

Sgt. Randy Force, a police spokesman, said Bishop O’Brien wasn’t being charged with causing the crash because Mr. Reed was jaywalking. “If the bishop had remained at the scene, in all likelihood he would not have been charged with any crime,” Sgt. Force said.

According to court documents, Bishop O’Brien told police he thought he had hit a dog or a cat or that someone had thrown a rock at his vehicle.

Police said in the court documents that Mr. O’Brien had driven the car to Mass on Sunday and to visit his sister in Scottsdale. He had also made a call about having the windshield fixed, police said.

The documents said that a priest had informed Bishop O’Brien on Sunday night that police were looking for him, but that the bishop never contacted authorities. Police said they had no information on the second car.

Sgt. Force said alcohol wasn’t a focus of the investigation but also noted that there would have been no way to test for it by the time police talked to Bishop O’Brien.

In the bishop’s previous agreement with prosecutors, admitted that he allowed priests to work with minors after he knew of sexual misconduct reports against them, and that he transferred them to ministries without telling their new supervisors.

Under the deal, Bishop O’Brien agreed, among other things, to appoint the equivalent of a chief of staff to supervise the enforcement of the church’s sexual misconduct policies.

Some U.S. Catholic bishops have been arrested during political protests. And in 1985, the former president of the national bishops conference, Archbishop John R. Roach of St. Paul and Minneapolis, pleaded guilty to drunken driving and was sentenced to 38 hours in jail plus substance-abuse treatment and a fine. He served another decade as archbishop.

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