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Bishop charged in fatal hit-and-run

Clergyman had reached immunity deal in sex abuse cover-up

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PHOENIX, Arizona (CNN) -- Two weeks after signing a deal to avoid charges stemming from his handling of a sex abuse scandal, the Roman Catholic bishop of Phoenix has been charged with leaving the scene of a fatal weekend accident, prosecutors said.

Maricopa County Attorney Rick Romley announced the felony charge Tuesday against 67-year-old Bishop Thomas O'Brien.

"All I will say without commenting [on] the evidence is that I would not have brought charges if I did not believe there as a reasonable likelihood I could sustain this charge before a jury," Romley said.

"Our law here in Arizona, it requires that the driver have known that he injured an individual or a reasonable person should have known that he may have hit an individual," Romley said. "And the facts and circumstances surrounding his conduct after the accident will go directly to that element of the charge."

The charge the bishop faces is a class 4 felony, which carries a penalty ranging from probation to nearly four years in prison if convicted, according to the spokesman for the Maricopa county attorney's office.

Romley would not comment on a possible sentence but said the bishop "will not be treated any differently than anybody else."

The charge came after O'Brien, who recently avoided prosecution on charges of covering up sexual abuse by priests in his diocese, was released on bail after being arrested on suspicion of leaving the scene of an accident.

O'Brien told an arresting officer that he thought he had hit a dog or a cat, or that someone had thrown a rock at his car, according to court documents.

While he was being booked, O'Brien's blood pressure shot up, said county attorney's office spokesman Barnett Lotstein. The bishop was taken to St. Joseph's Hospital and released a few hours later. He then was booked into the Madison Street Jail, according to Sgt. Randy Force, a Phoenix police spokesman.

Maricopa County Attorney Rick Romley announces the charge Tuesday.
Maricopa County Attorney Rick Romley announces the charge Tuesday.

The pedestrian killed, Jim Reed, 43, was jaywalking about 8:30 p.m. Saturday and was hit by two cars, Force said.

"He was crossing midblock, and in Arizona that requires a pedestrian to yield the right of way to oncoming traffic, and he did not do that," Force said.

In a statement issued Monday night, Monsignor Richard Moyer said the diocese will cooperate with police and offered its sympathy and "prayerful support" to Reed's family.

"No further statement will be made while the investigation proceeds," Moyer said.

The sergeant said that a witness wrote down the license plate number and description of the first car but that authorities had no information on the second vehicle.

A check showed the first car to be registered to the Phoenix Diocese, Force said. Further investigation led officials to O'Brien's home Monday with a search warrant.

Earlier Monday, investigators seized the bishop's tan Buick, which had a damaged front end and windshield, Force said.

"The bishop has preliminarily told investigators that he's the only person who was driving that car and that he was driving it in that area and at that time Saturday night," Force said.

The diocese did not return calls for comment. O'Brien has led Phoenix's Catholic community since 1982

O'Brien, 67, reached a deal June 2 with the county attorney's office to avoid a possible indictment on charges that he failed to report sexual misconduct by priests and that he placed or transferred priests or other church personnel to positions in which they could commit further acts of sexual misconduct, a statement from the county attorney's office said.

According to the deal, the bishop would not be prosecuted if the agreement were implemented in full. Among its requirements were for the diocese to hire a youth protection advocate who would enforce diocese policy on sexual misconduct, and to pay the county attorney's office $700,000 for a victims-compensation fund.

Romley said that agreement is "separate and distinct" from the charges against O'Brien in connection with the accident and would stand if O'Brien were to give up his post. He said he had "absolutely no regrets" about signing off on the deal.

"To this day, hearing all the arguments, I believe it was the best way to proceed," he said.

Six priests were indicted in the investigation into the sexual abuse allegations in the diocese, according to the county attorney's office.

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