Opinions Mixed on O'Brien Ruling
Understanding, Relief, Anger Among Views

By Michael Clancy
The Arizona Republic [Phoenix AZ]
April 3, 2004

Relief was the predominant emotion at the Diocesan Pastoral Center when Bishop Thomas J. O'Brien was spared a jail term and sentenced March 26 to probation and community service for his conviction in a fatal hit-and-run accident.

Outside Catholic Church headquarters, the reaction was much more varied, ranging from relief to understanding to outright anger.

"I, too, am relieved," said the Rev. Chris Carpenter, pastor of Christ the King parish in Mesa. "I think the sentence is just and is the best possible situation both for Bishop O'Brien and for the diocese. Hopefully, all local Catholics can now put this painful time behind us and move into the future."

Tom Van Dyke of Phoenix saw things differently.

"I think he got special treatment from the judge," Van Dyke said. "If he wasn't a bishop, he would be serving jail time."

O'Brien's sentence imposed a deferred sentence, to be served if he does not meet the terms of his probation, including 1,000 hours of community service helping the sick and dying. Judge Stephen Gerst provided a thorough argument for his sentencing decision.

O'Brien was convicted Feb. 17 for a June 2003 accident that took the life of Jim Reed, 43. He resigned as head of the diocese three days after the accident.

Van Dyke said he feared the sentence would send the wrong message to other drivers involved in hit-and-run accidents. A law professor at Arizona State University said that should not be the case.

"Sentencing, done properly, means making the punishment fit both the crime and the criminal, not just one or the other," said Patrick Brennan, who has expertise in church matters. "The stiff but not exaggerated sentence is good for all concerned."

Brennan said Gerst was right to leave out consideration of O'Brien's role in the sexual-abuse situation in the Phoenix Diocese, and he added that O'Brien is not a danger to the community.

"Community service that demands that O'Brien take account of and serve the human and social interests that he neglected on the night of the crime - this strikes me as the right punishment of this man, for this crime," he said.

George Garbel, an O'Brien critic, said Gerst appeared to do all he could to avoid putting the bishop behind bars.

"Bishop O'Brien's demeanor is still not reflective of someone who is truly sorry for his act," Garbel said. "In my view, he is still really in denial and feels he is not guilty of anything. I'm sure the public will not be satisfied with the sentence, outside of the blind supporters of the bishop."

Attorney John Jakubczyk, president of Arizona Right to Life, an anti-abortion group, said Gerst did a good job in providing a rationale for the sentence. Now the burden moves to O'Brien to make the most of the sentence.

"Now let us see how he responds to his second chance," Jakubczyk said.

Reach the reporter at or (602) 444-8550.


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