While Roman Catholic Phoenix Bishop Thomas O’Brien's inept and possibly illegal handling of the sex scandal that has shaken the church raised doubts about his stewardship, the criminal charge he now faces for leaving the scene of a fatal accident renders him incapable of providing the leadership his flock needs and deserves.
A hallmark of quality leadership is the ability and willingness to confront problems and resolve them. O'Brien's approach, which appears to have become second nature, has been to avoid, obstruct and deny.
As with all defendants, of course, O'Brien is innocent until proven guilty.
Although County Attorney Richard Romley has charged O'Brien with felony leaving the scene of a fatal accident, he is presumed innocent. Police say O’Brien told them he thought he had struck a dog or cat, or that someone had thrown something at his car as he was driving home Saturday night.
Actually, O’Brien's vehicle had struck Jim Reed, 43, of Phoenix, who was jaywalking across the busy street. If O'Brien had stopped, police say, he probably wouldn't have been charged.
But if O’Brien didn't know what he hit, or what hit him, didn't the possibility that it might have been a person cross his mind? If he thought it could have been an animal, wouldn't a caring person, let alone one of the state's top religious leaders, stop to render aid?
Although police say it's impossible to tell if O’Brien was impaired by alcohol or medication, it is plausible that he was impaired by the stress he has been under in recent months, and possibly by health problems. But it is the responsibility of every motorist not to get behind the wheel if he or she is impaired.
Regardless, O’Brien now faces a charge that could send him to prison, for making a split-second decision not to stop — to continue driving. He later called a secretary about replacing his damaged windshield.
What a stark parallel to his response to case after case of reported sexual abuse of young people by priests under his authority. Instead of rendering aid to injured victims, O’Brien figuratively drove away — often taking the offending priests from the scene as well.
The Phoenix Diocese today faces nothing less than a crisis of confidence — from within and without. Regardless of the outcome of his criminal case, by his own hand O'Brien has removed the moral foundation upon which his leadership of the diocese once rested.
For the sake of the 480,000 Arizonans who are members of the diocese, and for the future of one of our state's largest and most important institutions, Bishop O'Brien must go. The diocese desperately needs strong leadership to reform and to heal — leadership that O’Brien cannot provide.