PHOENIX – The Roman Catholic bishop of Phoenix was charged with leaving the scene of a fatal accident Tuesday 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 O'Brien (search), released late Monday on $45,000 bail, also 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 Rick 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.
On Tuesday night, O'Brien's nephew, Jim Dearing, read a statement in front of the bishop's house expressing the family's sympathy for Reed's family.
"We are so sorry for their pain and loss," the statement said. "This is a horrible tragedy for everyone -- the Reed family, our family, the bishop and the entire Catholic community."
Just over two weeks ago, O'Brien admitted that he allowed priests to work with minors after he knew of sexual misconduct allegations against them, 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 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 predicted the Vatican (search) 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 (search), said O'Brien's response to both the sexual abuse allegations and hit-and-run case demonstrate his refusal to accept responsibility.
"His decision with sexual abuse was to discredit, deny or run away from victims and to protect his priests," Pfaffenberger said. "Unfortunately, faced with a traffic accident, he once again ignored the victim and drove away."
The Rev. Wilton Gregory, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, said at an appearance in Johnstown, Pa., that he didn't know enough about O'Brien's situation to comment.
The Vatican also declined to comment about O'Brien's future in church leadership.
The bishop hadn't returned to work as of Tuesday, diocese attorney Jim Belanger said. The diocese's vicars general were handling day-to-day affairs, he said. O'Brien has been ordered not to leave the state, so is unlikely to attend a national meeting of bishops starting Thursday in St. Louis.
The accident occurred after dark Saturday, when the 43-year-old Reed was struck by two cars as he crossed a street in the middle of the block about three miles from the bishop's home.
Both cars drove off. Police were still seeking information on the second car Tuesday.
Police said Reed was jaywalking. Sgt. Randy Force said the bishop may not have been charged at all if he had remained at the scene. According to court documents, O'Brien told police he thought he had hit a dog or a cat or that someone had thrown a rock at his vehicle.