Ex-Bishop's Hit-Run Trial Begins

ABC News [Phoenix]
January 12, 2004

Dozens of prospective jurors filed into a courtroom Monday as jury selection got under way in the hit-and-run trial of former Roman Catholic Bishop Thomas O'Brien.

Attorneys expect to spend up to a week selecting the 12 people who will hear O'Brien's case. O'Brien was present Monday.

Testimony is scheduled to begin next week; the trial could last a month.

O'Brien, who led the Phoenix diocese's nearly 480,000 Catholics for more than 20 years, resigned in mid-June after he was charged with leaving the scene of the accident that killed Jim Reed.

Police said Reed, 43, had been drinking and was jaywalking.

The 68-year-old bishop told police he thought he had hit a dog or a cat or someone had thrown a rock at his car.

If convicted, O'Brien's sentence could range from probation to nearly four years in prison.

The accident came during a troubled period for the Phoenix diocese. Two weeks earlier, prosecutors announced that O'Brien had signed an immunity deal to spare him an indictment on obstruction charges for protecting priests accused of child molestation. As part of the deal, O'Brien agreed that he would no longer handle abuse claims.

In that deal, O'Brien acknowledged that he "allowed Roman Catholic priests under my supervision to work with minors after becoming aware of allegations of sexual misconduct."

"I further acknowledge that priests who had allegations of sexual misconduct made against them were transferred to ministries without full disclosure to their supervisor or to the community in which they were assigned," he said, adding that he regretted "any misconduct, hardship, or harm caused to the victims of sexual misconduct."

Some in the community called for O'Brien to resign in the abuse scandal, part of a nationwide onslaught of priest abuse allegations and cover-ups by higher-ups. O'Brien didn't step down as head of the diocese until after the car accident.

The accident happened as O'Brien was headed home from a June 14 confirmation ceremony. It was dark when Reed crossed a street on his way to catch a bus about three miles from O'Brien's home.

According to police, Reed was struck by two cars as he crossed in the middle of the block. Police said it appeared that O'Brien's car hit first. Both cars drove off.

For the most part, the details surrounding the accident are undisputed. At the heart of the case is whether the bishop knew, or should have known, that he injured someone.

Prosecutors will likely point to the fact that the passenger's side of O'Brien's windshield was heavily damaged and police reports that say O'Brien contacted his assistant the day after about having his windshield repaired.

Defense attorneys were expected to argue that O'Brien didn't know what he hit or realize that he hurt someone.

O'Brien's admission that he protected allegedly abusive priests was part of a nationwide scandal that began in Boston two years ago.

Since then, more than 1,000 people have come forward with abuse allegations against dioceses across the country.

The charges have led to large financial claims against the church, the resignation of top officials and the prosecution of priests.

To pay the largest settlement allowed to date, the Boston diocese is selling its official residence to help raise $85 million it has agreed to pay victims. Cardinal Bernard Law quit as Boston archbishop amid the scandal. A Boston-area priest, John Geoghan, was jailed for abuse and then murdered in prison.

Last week, American bishops said a study showed 90 percent of dioceses were complying with new rules to prevent future abuse. But more court cases loom: after a Dec. 31 deadline passed, lawyers in California said some 800 people had filed abuse lawsuits against Catholic dioceses there.


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