Bishop Thomas J. O’Brien, former leader of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Phoenix, was convicted yesterday of leaving the scene of a hit-and-run accident that claimed the life of a pedestrian last June. The Arizona Republic says O’Brien, 68, became the nation’s highest-ranking Roman Catholic leader to be convicted of a felony. He could sentenced to as much as 45 months in prison, pending presentence procedures that will focus on his role in other events, including the cover-up of a decades-long sex-abuse scandal.
A preliminary presentence hearing was set for March 12. Prosecutors will be free to use about anything from O’Brien’s past to try to persuade the judge to impose the strictest possible sentence. “We can safely say avoidance behavior is not exactly something new with the bishop,” said prosecutor Anthony Novitsky, signaling where the next phase of the case is headed.
The prosecution believes that the bishop had a history of avoiding responsibility whenever things went wrong in his life. Under a judge’s ruling, jurors who sat through 14 days of testimony from 35 witnesses did not hear about the highly publicized sex scandal involving priests under O’Brien’s leadership. There was no metnion of the immunity agreement signed by O’Brien to avoid prosecution for obstructing justice in that scandal, or of lawsuits filed against O’Brien during his tenure.
Maricopa County Attorney Rick Romley, who led a 14-month investigation into the sex-abuse scandal, said O’Brien had been “less than forthcoming in other matters.”