- The Washington Times - Friday, March 26, 2004

PHOENIX (AP) — The Rev. Thomas O’Brien was sentenced to four years on probation yesterday for a hit-and-run that killed a pedestrian.

The priest, 68, is believed to be the first Roman Catholic bishop in U.S. history to be convicted of a felony. The conviction has destroyed his career as head of the Phoenix Diocese.

He was also ordered to perform 1,000 hours of community service, including hospital visits to severely injured and dying people. His driver’s license was suspended for five years. The clergyman could have gotten as much as three years and nine months behind bars.

Judge Stephen Gerst said the conviction alone was a significant punishment for the public figure.

“He will bear the quiet glances and whispers of others for the rest of his life,” Judge Gerst said.

The priest declined to comment after the hearing.

He was found guilty in February of leaving the scene after he hit Jim Reed, 43, with his car. He told police that he thought he had hit a dog or that a rock had struck his windshield.

Last week, the convicted clergyman asked Judge Gerst for probation and said he could still serve Catholics in Arizona as a priest. He also apologized to Mr. Reed’s family saying, “I know there is no one to blame for this but me.”

Prosecutors asked for six months in jail and four years of probation.

As bishop, O’Brien led the diocese’s nearly 480,000 Catholics for 21 years, but stepped down in June after his arrest in the crash.

Just weeks earlier, prosecutors announced that he had made a deal to avoid prosecution on obstruction charges for protecting child-molesting priests. Under the deal, the then-bishop agreed to no longer handle abuse claims.

Mr. Reed was drunk and jaywalking the night of June 14 when the former bishop hit him en route home from celebrating Mass. The crash left a giant spider-web crack in the windshield and Mr. Reed lying in the street.

Father O’Brien then drove the two miles back to his house and parked in his garage.

He testified that he heard a loud crash but never saw anyone in the road. The defense further argued that dim lighting, headlight glare and the victim’s dark clothes made it hard for the priest to see him.

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