PHOENIX - The Roman Catholic bishop of Phoenix was charged yesterday with leaving the scene of a fatal accident by the same prosecutor who struck a deal with the church leader that allowed him to avoid indictment for sheltering molesters in the clergy.
Bishop Thomas J. O'Brien, released late Monday on $45,000 bail, faced new criticism and questions about whether he would be able to maintain his post as spiritual leader of Arizona's 430,000 Catholics.
O'Brien, 67, could be sentenced to anything from probation to less than four years in prison if he is convicted on the current charge, a felony, and Maricopa County Attorney Richard M. Romley said authorities will keep investigating the accident to see if other charges are appropriate.
The charge wouldn't affect a landmark agreement announced two weeks ago in which O'Brien relinquished some of his authority, sparing him from obstruction charges for protecting priests accused of child molestation, Romley said.
"There is no breach by this misconduct," Romley said, stressing that the earlier deal achieved his goal of protecting children. "That agreement was not related. This is totally separate and distinct."
O'Brien was arrested Monday after police investigating the weekend hit-and-run traced a license plate number to the bishop's car and found the windshield caved in. A pedestrian, Jim Reed, was killed in the accident. O'Brien has declined to comment on the case.
A little more than two weeks ago, O'Brien admitted that he allowed priests to work with minors after he knew of sexual misconduct allegations against the priests, and that he transferred them to ministries without telling their new supervisors.
Under a deal with Romley, O'Brien agreed, among other things, to appoint the equivalent of a chief of staff to supervise the enforcement of the church's sexual misconduct policies.
The Rev. Richard P. McBrien, a theologian at the University of Notre Dame, said O'Brien can no longer effectively run the diocese with such enormous pressures on him, and he predicted the Vatican will replace him. Only the pope can remove a bishop.
"There's no way, given this second incident, that he can continue," McBrien said.
Paul Pfaffenberger, organizer of the Phoenix chapter of the Survivors' Network of Those Abused by Priests, said O'Brien's response to the sexual abuse allegations and the hit-and-run case demonstrate his refusal to accept responsibility.