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Archbishop arrives to 'heal' Phoenix diocese

Police pressing on with hit-and-run investigation

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A Roman Catholic bishop is arrested in a fatal hit-and-run accident in Phoenix, Arizona. (June 17)
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PHOENIX, Arizona (CNN) -- Archbishop Michael Sheehan, appointed Wednesday to administer the Phoenix diocese after its bishop was arrested for a hit-and-run, said he seeks to bring "peace and healing" to the diocese.

"We can't change the past, but we can do a lot about the future," Sheehan told reporters, just hours after Pope John Paul II accepted Bishop Thomas O'Brien's resignation and appointed the archbishop of Santa Fe, New Mexico, as his temporary replacement until someone new can be appointed in about six months.

O'Brien, 67, was arrested Monday for leaving the scene of a hit-and-run accident that left a pedestrian dead over the weekend, authorities said.

The accident Saturday night was not O'Brien's only recent legal difficulty. Earlier this month, he avoided prosecution on charges of covering up sexual abuse by priests in his diocese.

O'Brien resigned Wednesday after nearly 22 years as the leader of about 500,000 Roman Catholics in the Phoenix diocese. A spokeswoman said he resigned because the events and their notoriety would have hurt the church.

Sheehan acknowledged that "human weaknesses have always been there" in the 2,000-year history of the Catholic church. But he said no one should leave the church because of that and should instead "put their faith where it counts."

"Don't put your faith in the priest or bishop, put your faith in the Lord and in the sacraments of our Catholic church," the archbishop urged. "The power of good overcomes the power of weakness, human weakness."

Sheehan said he and O'Brien have known each other for a long time and that O'Brien assured him Wednesday of his support and prayers for the new ministry.

O'Brien issued a statement saying he resigned with a "heavy heart and great sorrow."

He thanked all those who have supported him "through good times and bad," and said he has always hoped during his tenure that "the focus be on the good works of the church in the community and not myself."

Legal issues and notoriety

O'Brien's resignation will have no bearing on the investigation into the death of Jim Reed, 43, a pedestrian who was jaywalking when he was hit Saturday night by two cars, Arizona authorities said.

O'Brien is free on $45,000 bond in the traffic accident and faces a preliminary hearing June 25. He told authorities he thought he had hit a dog or a cat, or that a rock had hit his car, and that he didn't realize he had apparently hit a person.

It is unclear whether alcohol was involved in the case, said Maricopa County Attorney Rick Romley. But authorities want to know how much wine the bishop may have had at a confirmation ceremony Saturday before the crash.

O'Brien told police "it wasn't any great consequential amount" that he drank, said Bill FitzGerald, a spokesman for the county attorney's office.

"That's why we're asking to go back and talk to the parishioners. Did he appear to be impaired? How much wine did he drink?" Romley said. "That would possibly lead to other charges, if he was impaired."

O'Brien avoided prosecution June 2 on charges of covering up sexual abuse by priests in the Phoenix Diocese by agreeing to have the diocese pay $700,000 to the county attorney's office to compensate and provide counseling for victims and to pay investigative costs.

He also faced charges that he placed or transferred priests or other church personnel into positions in which they could commit further acts of sexual misconduct, prosecutors said.

The immunity agreement stated the bishop would not be prosecuted if its terms were implemented in full.

Damaged windshield

Reed was hit by two cars, according to police. A witness wrote down the license plate number and description of the first car, police said, but authorities have no information on the second vehicle.

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

Police have impounded O'Brien's tan Buick sedan, which had a damaged windshield, and prosecutors are trying to determine -- despite the time lapse between the accident Saturday and his arrest Monday -- whether he might have been driving under the influence of alcohol.

Romley told CNN on Wednesday it appeared there was "some inconsistency" about what the bishop did after the accident.

"It's very critical for us to try to get into ... the state of mind of the bishop at the time of the accident, because under Arizona law we must show that he either knew, or that a reasonable person under the circumstances, should have known that he hit a person," Romley said.

"And what we've been able to ascertain is that the bishop thought that he had hit a dog or a cat. That was his statement. However, we have additional information that shows that he didn't immediately report it to the police."

Romley said authorities tried unsuccessfully to contact the bishop Sunday.

"We contacted another priest who did call the bishop to tell him that the police were looking for him in regard to the fatal accident, and he did not [contact police]. And in fact, the following day after that, Monday, he had told his secretary to replace the windshield," Romley said.

Romley was asked about a report that drops of blood were found on the car and whether authorities have determined if the blood is from a human or an animal.

"We're still in the process of doing DNA matching," said Romley, who also said that hair was retrieved from the car windshield where "the body made its greatest impact."

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