Depending on one’s view of the world, the stunning fall of Thomas J. O’Brien, erstwhile Roman Catholic bishop of the diocese of Phoenix, was either an instance of divine justice meted out promptly on earth or a truly bizarre chain of events that precipitated his resignation and, now, conviction for felony hit-and-run. Beyond interpretation are the root and broader meaning of O’Brien’s undoing. The same relativism O’Brien displayed in harboring pedophile priests for two decades governed his passions, and it was those passions that sealed his fate the night he struck a pedestrian with his vehicle and then fled. The self-service and atrocious judgment that marked O’Brien’s actions as both man and bishop are perhaps the most striking example to date of the moral confusion that characterizes so many of the leaders implicated by the pedophile-priest scandal.
Convicted by a jury last Tuesday of leaving the scene of a fatal accident, O’Brien became the first Catholic bishop in recorded U.S. history to be found guilty of a felony. The case arose from an accident that occurred on the evening of June 14, 2003. O’Brien was driving home from a church function when an intoxicated pedestrian jaywalked in front of his vehicle. O’Brien’s vehicle struck the victim, Jim Reed, with such force that Reed’s body left an enormous crater in the right side of the windshield. Reed died at the scene. Had O’Brien stopped to render assistance, he almost certainly would not have faced any legal repercussions. But he did not. Instead, by his own account, O’Brien sped on home, ate some leftover pizza, and went to bed.
To be sure, O’Brien had a lot on his mind that night. Two weeks before, news had leaked that O’Brien had cut a deal with county prosecutors to avoid criminal prosecution for knowingly shuttling pedophile priests among different parishes under his authority. A flurry of lawsuits and a grand jury investigation turned up evidence that over the prior three decades (two-thirds of which were O’Brien’s tenure), at least 50 priests, former priests, and church employees throughout the diocese had been accused of sexual misconduct with children. Just as shocking was O’Brien’s own behavior. On more than one occasion, O’Brien personally scolded victims and witnesses for telling others of the molestation they or others had suffered. One priest went to O’Brien to relate that he suspected another priest of molesting a young man he had come to know. In a response that seemed to capture impeccably the collective mindset of liberal bishops across the country then excusing the child molesters in their employ, O’Brien exploded that the complaining priest should get beyond his obsession with “gay pedophile priests.”
To avoid possible criminal charges for obstruction of justice, O’Brien signed an agreement with prosecutors that sacrificed the faithful’s mammon for his own freedom. He consented to hiring an independent ombudsman at the diocese to handle sexual misconduct complaints. The diocese also agreed to pay out over $1 million toward victim compensation and reimbursement for the cost of the criminal investigation–money from hard-working church members suddenly dedicated to shielding O’Brien from prosecution.
On June 2, 2003, the Arizona Republic reported the accord in a front-page story beneath the banner headline, “Bishop O’Brien admits cover-up in sexual abuse cases.” O’Brien, the paper reported, had admitted knowingly permitting priests accused of sexual misconduct to continue working with children. O’Brien also acknowledged transferring these predators throughout the diocese. This front-page embarrassment infuriated the prideful cleric, according to church insiders later quoted in the same paper. The next day, O’Brien denied having made any such admissions to prosecutors. By week’s end, O’Brien’s attorneys and the county’s top prosecutor were publicly sparring over the precise meaning of the agreement. A largely unscathed O’Brien continued governing as bishop.
Yet the immunity from prosecution that O’Brien so coveted would be denied him by other means. Two weeks later, O’Brien was arrested for leaving the scene of his fatal collision with Jim Reed. The details that later emerged revealed a callousness on the part of O’Brien that explained abundantly why children in his diocese had fared so poorly on his watch. Despite a collision that must have “exploded like a thunderclap,” in the later words of a prosecuting attorney, O’Brien never even hit his brakes. In the days that followed, O’Brien refused to answer half a dozen phone calls from friends. He ignored police officers who rang his doorbell. When a top diocese official told O’Brien that police were trying to question him (witnesses caught part of his license plate number, leading authorities to his doorstep), O’Brien never called police–and later claimed he did not know how to reach them. O’Brien also asked church staff to help make arrangements to have the windshield fixed.
When this double-whammy of a scandal–child-molesting priests plus a fatal hit-and-run–finally prompted Rome to call for his resignation as bishop, O’Brien cried for hours over his plight and his ignominy. Only after being reminded he would always carry the honorary title of bishop did he relent and step down.
During his trial in January 2004, O’Brien was in old form. He arrived for court every day wearing his clerical collar, and at one point ostentatiously held rosary beads in front of the jurors. After a parade of witnesses placed his car at the scene of the accident, O’Brien took the stand to explain his actions. On several occasions, he contradicted what he had told police in a recorded statement following the accident. He stuck with his story that he did not know he had hit a person (he said he thought it might have been a dog or rock). Prosecutors were not permitted to introduce into evidence the fact that O’Brien had previously committed a hit-and-run after a parking lot fender-bender.
How could somebody so self-serving and corrupt ascend to such a position of prominence in the largest church on earth? Surely the human condition is an important part of the answer. American evangelicals have their Jim Bakkers and Jimmy Swaggarts to remind them that pastoral office is no guarantee of sainthood, and that Catholics are not alone in their shame over the recent misconduct of some of their spiritual leaders.
But O’Brien also exemplified and perpetuated the moral relativism that has taken hold of so many of the other upper reaches of U.S. society, including many quarters of organized religion. O’Brien plainly equated accusations of pedophilia with gay bashing. As a result, he felt obliged to chastise the accusers: Their complaints, by his standards, were evidence of bigotry. This view was symptomatic of his broader disconnect with Catholic doctrine, a schism that rendered O’Brien’s diocese one of the most liberal in the country. O’Brien’s top lieutenants reflected this tilt. In 1999, the monsignor who served as O’Brien’s top lobbyist at the legislature worked to torpedo a piece of anti-abortion legislation by convincing two Senate Democrats to withdraw their support of the bill unless the Republican leadership agreed to repeal welfare reform (this writer was witness to those machinations, which became well-known in the Arizona right-to-life community). The same monsignor was an open backer of liberal Arizona Governor Janet Napolitano–with O’Brien’s tacit support.
Ironically, the same status and privilege that O’Brien clung to so strongly will now likely guarantee he goes to jail. A less-famous first-time offender would almost certainly be sentenced to probation. But with over 70 percent of Phoenix-area residents in a recent poll calling for jail time for the ex-bishop, O’Brien may soon have a chance to find out if incarceration is what the original advocates of prisons said it was: a place for lost souls to rediscover their Maker, and to reassess one’s priorities before the sands of life are poured out.
–Andrew Peyton Thomas is an attorney and author in Phoenix.