Bishop Thomas J. O'Brien is the highest ranking Catholic cleric ever charged criminally in the United States. As we go to press, a jury is mulling whether the bishop will celebrate his next Mass behind bars.
Bishop O'Brien is accused of "leaving the scene of a serious injury or fatal accident," a hit-and-run.
Jim Reed, a pedestrian, died in the street where he was struck.
On Monday, February 9, Bishop O'Brien took the stand in a desperate attempt to save himself. Pale, nervous, hands shaking whenever they weren't clasped together, O'Brien exhibited the warmth of a dead cod. While sticking to the incredible claim that he had no idea what he'd run over, the bishop stumbled repeatedly regarding his behavior after the hit-and-run. Worse, his efforts to convey remorse on the witness stand were as piously mechanical as a professional pallbearer's.
It wasn't enough that he wanted to express his regret to Reed's family. No, O'Brien clumsily added that he wanted to express regret to the entire "Native American community," as if the tragedy were racial and not personal.
The night of the fatality, O'Brien sped off. He testified that he parked his car in the garage, inspected the windshield that was destroyed by the impact, went inside and had a few slices of pizza. The next morning he got up, ate breakfast, dilly-dallied for three and a half hours over television, served Mass, returned home and watched sports shows and then went to a gala Father's Day dinner party at his sister's. The phone rang during the festivities and Monsignor Dale Fushek, the bishop's friend and closest adviser, informed O'Brien that there had been a fatal hit-and-run at 19th Avenue and Glendale. The police had O'Brien's license plate number and wanted to question him.
Fushek asked if the bishop had been in that particular neighborhood on Saturday night when the fatal hit-and-run occurred.
"I might have been," replied the bishop.
Might have been?
Refusing to level with his friend and adviser; it's no wonder that Bishop O'Brien didn't hang up and contact the authorities who were searching for him. Instead, he returned to the party. Sat back down to dinner. He stuck around while presents were opened. When he did go home, he didn't call the police. Nor did he answer his ringing phone. When he woke up, he didn't call the police. When the police banged on his door, he didn't answer.
O'Brien didn't call the authorities after the accident. He didn't call the police 24 hours after the accident once he learned they were looking for him. Nor did he contact detectives the following morning. The bishop hid from the law.
When the detectives finally gained entry, they asked the bishop why he hadn't contacted the police, given that he knew he was wanted for questioning.
Bishop O'Brien replied that he didn't know how to contact the police.
The bishop's lawyer tried to salvage the destruction by leading O'Brien.
Why, yes, of course the bishop knew how to phone the authorities. O'Brien simply "misspoke" during his interview with the police.
From the witness stand, O'Brien claimed that what he meant to say was that because Monsignor Fushek hadn't given him the name of a particular officer or a particular department, the leader of the Roman Catholic church here was at a loss as to whom to call at police headquarters.
It was Monsignor Fushek's fault.
In fact, Fushek "misled" the bishop because the monsignor said the accident was at the intersection of 19th Avenue and Glendale. The bishop testified that the accident was west of that particular intersection.
In fact, the accident was at 1950 West Glendale Avenue.
It was Monsignor Fushek's fault.
In an effort to suggest that the bishop in reality did feel some sort of remorse, despite his behavior, the defense attorney had the bishop recount the tears he shed with his housekeeper in the "Pope's Room" at O'Brien's residence.
Of course, those tears only fell after the police had interrogated O'Brien -- after he finally realized that this tragedy would not be swept under the rug.
Before the hit-and-run, we all knew this particular religious leader for his disgraceful behavior in the local sex scandal involving his clergy. Bishop O'Brien's criminal complicity in the sexual abuse of minors by his priests went on for decades. Last June, the bishop signed an admission of guilt in the child molestation cases when prosecutors threatened to haul him before a grand jury unless he confessed and relinquished control of the diocese. O'Brien further promised to undertake serious reform to prevent any more predation by priests upon the innocent.
On the evening of June 14 at approximately 8:30 p.m., Bishop Thomas J. O'Brien stepped on the accelerator and fled the carnage.
Bishop O'Brien drove off without offering last rites.
Bishop O'Brien drove off without rendering aid, without summoning emergency personnel, without providing information for authorities.
In fact, the head of the Catholic church in greater Phoenix hid from investigators.
When the police finally tracked down Bishop O'Brien, he claimed he had no idea he'd struck and killed a fellow human being. He claimed he had no idea he'd collided with a bear of a man, Jim Reed. The bishop claimed he had no idea he'd catapulted the 240-pound Reed into the air after the initial impact. The bishop claimed he had no idea that, when the windshield was shattered moments later, the explosive damage was caused by a man made in the image and likeness of God.
Bishop Thomas J. O'Brien said he thought he'd hit a dog.
Bishop Thomas J. O'Brien is a monster.
By now, most readers are familiar with Bishop O'Brien's arrogant refusal to accept any responsibility for the death of Jim Reed, as well as his long record of denying that he collaborated in sustaining a culture of sexual abuse in the Phoenix diocese.
These are grievous, mortal sins.
But I want to tell you about a venial sin, something that speaks volumes about this man's character. If you want to know about this cleric's soul, you need look no further than a previous accident.
This is a story the jurors did not hear.
In October 2002, Robert Schake won a coveted parking space as an employee incentive from Catholic Healthcare West at Third Avenue and Thomas next to St. Joseph's Hospital. He'd occupied the coveted slot for approximately two weeks when he noticed damage to his vehicle. After returning from lunch one afternoon, he observed that his car was gouged. There were a total of five scrapes each about eight inches in length along the back end of his vehicle on the driver's side.
Schake, who works in information technology, approached the problem calmly and logically. He returned to the parking lot later that day to inspect the car in the adjoining space for damage. He immediately saw that the right front bumper of the neighboring car was banged up in a manner that precisely lined up with the impact on his own vehicle.
When he asked the parking lot's head of security who owned the car in the neighboring space, he was informed that the individual was none other than Bishop Thomas O'Brien.
Schake went to the headquarters of the diocese. Of course, the bishop was not available.
Reached by telephone, Schake told me what happened.
"It took a while to get this thing through, two to three weeks," said Schake. "Everyone was very nice, but I had to follow up to get it done."
Even though Schake was an innocent victim, he had to force the issue to get his meager compensation of several hundred dollars against the bishop's insurance company. In the process, Schake was turned over to the bishop's attorney, Gregg Leasey.
Because of Schake's doggedness, the bishop's insurance company eventually paid for the repairs.
Did the bishop ever tell Schake he was sorry? Did the bishop ever drop him a note apologizing for the accident? Did the bishop ever express any regret for the aggravation he'd caused Schake?
"No," said Schake, "none whatsoever."
In fact, the bishop took just the opposite attitude. He refused to accept any responsibility.
The bishop's attorney informed Schake that O'Brien denied any involvement in the accident.
"He had no knowledge of hitting my vehicle according to the lawyer," recalled Schake.
Doesn't that sound familiar.
That's the same thing the bishop now claims in his second hit-and-run. Except this time there was a dead man in the street, the bishop's windshield was shattered and clotted with human remains and O'Brien claims he has no knowledge of what hit his vehicle. He has no idea that he ran over a 240-pound giant. His mind was elsewhere.
Bishop O'Brien lied about the parking-lot accident, and I believe he's lying now.
There was a witness to the parking-lot accident.
The head of security observed Bishop Thomas O'Brien exit his Buick after striking Schake's car.
According to Supervisor Mike Gerard, the bishop inspected his own car after the accident and then went over and examined the damage to Schake's vehicle.
And yet the bishop left neither a business card nor a note on Schake's windshield for possible follow-up. He did not report the fender-bender to any of the security guards. He just disappeared.
This obviously made a big impression on Schake at the time of the accident.
"[The security guard] said he saw the bishop looking at his own vehicle as well as mine. I was surprised when I learned that the car belonged to the bishop," said Schake. "I was surprised that ownership of the accident was not taken. That would be true of anyone."
It would be particularly true for the head of the Roman Catholic church in Phoenix. But Bishop Thomas J. O'Brien never took responsibility for his behavior in matters large or small.
It's Wednesday, February 4, and the defense team of Tom Henze and Patrick McGroder III are wearing identical, tailored, gray pinstripe suits. The sartorial flash of the lawyers is exceeded only by their reputations.
At first glance, Bishop O'Brien appears to be wearing only a simple priest's black suit. But the right hand sports a gold ring larger than a Godiva chocolate. Around his neck hangs a crucifix embedded with enormous, gaudy chunks of turquoise. And his fingers are wonderfully manicured.
Across the aisle, prosecutors Anthony Novitsky and Mitch Rand make do with honest wool suits and plain wedding bands.
The bishop has many friends in the gallery. Staunch and faithful, they believe Mary was a virgin, and they believe O'Brien is innocent. The bishop's sister sits in the back row. The siblings are so identical in appearance that it often looks like the bishop is sitting at the rear of the court in a dyed red wig.
Today, the dead man, Jim Reed, will be tried for being a drunken Indian.
McGroder is arguably the state's top personal injury lawyer, well known for representing police officer Jason Schechterle who was horribly burned after his Ford Crown Victoria burst into flames.
A specialist in accident-scene reconstructions, McGroder has already proved his worth eliciting damaging admissions from a detective early in the trial. The witness conceded that during the bishop's first interview, the officer had said it was possible O'Brien never saw what he hit.
Henze is infamous in criminal circles. In 1983, Keith Begay, the head of the transportation authority on the Navajo reservation, was videotaped taking a cash bribe. He later confessed. Henze walked him.
Today, the defense will attempt to convince the jury that the victim, Jim Reed, was so intoxicated at the time of the accident that he was responsible for what happened.
This is clearly an attempt to take the jury's eye off the ball. Who caused the accident is not an issue. Bishop O'Brien is not charged with causing the accident but rather fleeing its aftermath.
While the autopsy report makes it clear that Reed was intoxicated and the physical evidence is abundant that he was jaywalking, the defense chooses to red-marker the obvious with Stacey Arey, a single mom who lives in an apartment at the scene of the accident.
Unlike the parade of unctuous expert witnesses, Arey is forthright and likable. She is led smoothly through her tale by Henze and charms the jury by continually mispronouncing the floor covering in her apartment as "linoneum." She apologizes each time she stumbles.
On the evening Reed was killed, Arey had the door to her apartment open so that the fumes from her housecleaning could vent. Upon returning to her living room, she found the huge, six-foot-two Reed swaying unsteadily and demanding money.
She had no idea who this intoxicated giant was and quickly grabbed a knife.
"I don't know you. You better get out of here before I stab you," Arey recounted for the jury.
She asked the judge if it was permissible to repeat the expletive she'd hurled at the intruder and then quoted herself more vividly.
Reed demanded two dollars from Arey for the bus.
Faced with armed resistance, Reed staggered out of the apartment and into the path of Bishop O'Brien.
This was a colorful anecdote told by a sympathetic witness that was wildly irrelevant to the case at hand.
On cross-examination, prosecutor Novitsky nicely parried Henze with irrelevancies of his own.
Wasn't it true that Reed did not force his way in because, after all, the door was open? Wasn't it true that he could have been in the complex visiting friends and become disoriented after drinking and thought he'd walked into a buddy's apartment? Wasn't it true that he never threatened Arey?
Arey agreed with all of Novitsky's points, but so what?
No prosecutor could turn this into a benign encounter. There was a drunken stranger in the woman's living room panhandling for bus fare.
Point, team O'Brien.
Tarred with the obvious, Novitsky concluded with an ethnic elbow.
When Arey called 911, asked the prosecutor, hadn't she referred to Reed as "a big wetback dude"?
As long as I've reported upon Bishop Thomas J. O'Brien, for the many years that I have edited articles that documented his role in the child abuse that has plagued the Catholic families of Phoenix, with all of the stories I have read in other publications, one thing is constant.
Bishop O'Brien never accepts responsibility for his sins.
In 1990, Terry Greene wrote a package of articles in New Times detailing the outrageous child abuse cases of three priests. The groundbreaking coverage documented how Bishop O'Brien went to bat for the molesters with the judges during sentencing, thus helping to secure negligible penalties such as working in the church library. Of course, the victims and their families were ignored.
When called out, Bishop O'Brien refused to accept any responsibility for his part in creating and sustaining the culture of predation within the diocese.
In the wake of these articles and during a personal confrontation in Durant's restaurant on Central Avenue, Bishop O'Brien refused, once again, to accept any responsibility, to make himself available for an interview, to even speak. When the two of us were introduced inside the steak house, we shook hands, but I refused to let go of his grip. I asked when would he take Terry Greene's calls, when would he provide answers, when would he explain his behavior?
Bishop O'Brien froze, uttered not a word and just stared at me. I looked back into the eyes of complacency and collaboration.
Last year, writing for this newspaper, Robert Nelson broke the story of yet another molestation of a child by a local priest, a revelation that was part of the national scandal crucifying the faithful, destroying families and threatening the church's financial underpinning.
Nelson's article was the first in what became a media wave of publicity regarding new cases of abuse within the Phoenix church.
Once again, Bishop O'Brien refused to accept responsibility. He stonewalled. He hid.
In the end, O'Brien admitted that at least 50 priests and church workers in greater Phoenix had been accused of preying upon children.
A letter from Boston's notorious Cardinal Law explained that he'd shipped priests who were sexual molesters to Phoenix because O'Brien's was one of those "dioceses with policies that were less restrictive than ours."
Last year, a grand jury investigated whether O'Brien violated state law by refusing to report cases of child abuse to the authorities as required and whether he transferred molesters to unsuspecting parishes without warning local congregations of past behavior. On the eve of an indictment, County Attorney Rick Romley opted for the high ground. Rather than file charges, he forced the bishop to admit guilt in return for immunity from prosecution.
In the presence of an attorney on June 3, Bishop Thomas J. O'Brien signed the following short statement: "I acknowledge that I 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 prior allegations of sexual misconduct made against them were transferred to ministries without full disclosure to their superiors or to the community in which they were assigned."
In a bizarre development, Bishop O'Brien reversed himself and once again declared himself not guilty of anything. He reversed himself on the very day that the county attorney made the agreement public.
At a news conference, O'Brien repudiated the signed statement, declaring, "To suggest a cover-up is just plain false. I did not oversee decades of wrongdoing."
Prosecutor Romley exploded.
"Is he revising history?" asked Romley. "Did he fail to understand the confession he was signing? Did he fail to understand that he needed immunity?"
Of course he failed to understand. He had his immunity and once again he refused to accept responsibility for his conduct.
Within two weeks, on June 14, O'Brien would strike down Jim Reed.
Bishop O'Brien testified that he didn't see what he hit that fateful night in June. He heard the noise as his windshield exploded, looked over to the passenger side and saw nothing.
How can that be true?
Bishop Thomas J. O'Brien wants us to believe that when he heard his windshield break apart, it was the first sign of trouble.
That cannot possibly be true.
The first impact, both heard and felt, was when the front of his Buick smashed into all 240 pounds of Jim Reed. The impact was so tectonic that it flipped this giant of a man into the air and then onto the bishop's windshield.
When Reed landed upon the car's front window, it was the second explosive event.
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Whatever else was passing through the bishop's mind, there is no way that smashing into the pedestrian didn't snap him out of his reverie and hone his focus.
When Jim Reed obliterated the bishop's windshield, Thomas J. O'Brien saw exactly what happened.
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