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Thomas J. O'Brien (bishop)

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Thomas Joseph O'Brien
Bishop of Phoenix
ChurchRoman Catholic
AppointedNovember 9, 1981
InstalledJanuary 18, 1982
Term endedJune 18, 2003
PredecessorJames Steven Rausch
SuccessorThomas Olmsted
OrdinationMay 7, 1961
ConsecrationJanuary 6, 1982
by John Paul II, Eduardo Martínez Somalo, and Lucas Moreira Neves
Personal details
Born(1935-11-29)November 29, 1935
Indianapolis, Indiana, U.S.
DiedAugust 26, 2018(2018-08-26) (aged 82)
Phoenix, Arizona, U.S.
MottoTo build up the Body of Christ
Styles of
Thomas Joseph O'Brien
Reference style
Spoken styleYour Excellency
Religious styleBishop

Thomas Joseph O'Brien (November 29, 1935 – August 26, 2018) was an American prelate of the Roman Catholic Church. He served as Bishop of Phoenix from 1982 to 2003.

O'Brien resigned as bishop in 2003 after his involvement in a fatal hit-and-run accident.


Early life and ministry[edit]

Thomas O'Brien was born on November 29, 1935, in Indianapolis, Indiana. He attended St. Meinrad Seminary, feeling a call to the priesthood from an early age.[1]

O'Brien was ordained for the Diocese of Tucson, Arizona, on May 7, 1961.[2] He then served as an associate pastor at Immaculate Conception Parish in Douglas, Arizona.

In 1964, O'Brien was transferred to territory that would later become the Diocese of Phoenix,[3] as an associate pastor at St. Theresa Parish in Phoenix and later at St. Gregory Parish. He was named pastor of St. Catherine Parish in Phoenix in 1979, and also served as vicar general for the diocese.[1]

Bishop of Phoenix[edit]

On November 9, 1981, O'Brien was appointed the third bishop of the Diocese of Phoenix by Pope John Paul II. He received his episcopal consecration on January 6, 1982, from John Paul II himself, with Archbishops Eduardo Somalo and Lucas Neves serving as co-consecrators, in Rome. He was formally installed as bishop of Phoenix on January 18, 1982, and selected as his episcopal motto "To Build Up the Body of Christ."[4]

During his tenure, O'Brien earned a reputation as a successful fundraiser, builder of schools, and advocate for the poor.[1] He was instrumental in persuading John Paul II and Mother Teresa to make their respective visits to Phoenix in 1987 and 1989. Within the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, he chaired the Committee on Marriage and Family.

Sexual abuse scandal[edit]

In 1990, O'Brien oversaw the development and implementation of a diocesan policy to investigate sexual abuse cases involving priests. The policy was revised in 1995 and 1998, with many of its policies being adopted in the 2002 Dallas Charter. In 2002, Maricopa County prosecutors initiated a grand jury investigation into charges of sexual abuse by Catholic priests in the diocese of Phoenix. O'Brien was a target of that investigation for allegedly covering up allegations against other priests.

The investigation ended when O'Brien admitted he had sheltered abusive priests.[5] He agreed to cede his authority over diocesan sexual abuse policy in exchange for immunity from indictment for obstruction of justice.[6] On August 4, 2017, it was announced that a civil lawsuit was filed against O'Brien over allegations that he sexually molested a boy on several occasions at parishes in Phoenix and Goodyear, Arizona, from 1977 to 1982.[7]

Hit-and-run accident[edit]

On June 14, 2003, O'Brien was driving home from a confirmation ceremony when his vehicle struck a 43-year-old pedestrian named Jim Reed.[8] O'Brien drove away from the accident scene without stopping as required by law. Reed died from injuries.

A driver behind O'Brien reported O'Brien's license plate number to the police.[9] Police discovered a dent in a fender and a crack in the windshield of O'Brien's Buick Park Avenue.[8] O'Brien said he did not report the accident because he thought he had hit a dog, cat, or rock. He was arrested for leaving the scene of an accident and released on $45,000 bond.[8]

Resignation and legacy[edit]

Pope John Paul II accepted O'Brien's resignation as bishop of Phoenix on June 18, 2003.[2]

On February 17, 2004, after a three-and-a-half-week-long trial, O'Brien was found guilty of leaving the scene of a fatal accident.[9] On March 26, 2004, he was sentenced to four years' probation and 1,000 hours of community service, and he was required to surrender his driver's license for five years.[10] He was the first American Catholic bishop to be convicted of a felony.[11] O'Brien later asked for travel time to be deducted from his 1,000 hours and for flexibility in the number of hours he must serve each month.[12]

In November 2011, the Catholic Community Foundation of Phoenix announced that it was giving O'Brien its faith honoree award.[13] When news of the award became public, a controversy emerged over it. A few days later, O'Brien declined the award. The foundation, stating that it did not anticipate the adverse public reaction, wrote an apology to the community.[14]

O'Brien died in Phoenix on August 26, 2018, following complications from Parkinson's disease.[15][16]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c Broder, John and Nick Madigan (June 19, 2003). "'Unraveled' by Sex Abuse Crisis In Diocese, Phoenix Bishop Quits". The New York Times.
  2. ^ a b "Bishop Thomas Joseph O'Brien". Catholic-Hierarchy.org. David M. Cheney. Retrieved January 21, 2015.
  3. ^ The Diocese of Phoenix was split off from the Diocese of Tucson in 1969.
  4. ^ "Timeline for the Diocese of Phoenix". Roman Catholic Diocese of Phoenix. Archived from the original on November 22, 2010.
  5. ^ Philly DA Charges Priests, Teacher with Assault, Washington Post, February 10, 2011
  6. ^ Gibson, David (June 7, 2003). "The Bishop and the Prosecutor". The New York Times.
  7. ^ BILLEAUD, JACQUES (August 4, 2017). "Ex-Catholic Bishop of Phoenix Accused of Sex Abuse of Boy". US News and World Report. Retrieved September 22, 2022.
  8. ^ a b c Broder, John and Nick Madigan (June 18, 2003). "Police Investigate Alcohol In Case of Bishop and Death". The New York Times.
  9. ^ a b Madigan, Nick (February 18, 2004). "Phoenix Jury Finds Bishop Guilty in Fatal Hit-and-Run". The New York Times.
  10. ^ Madigan, Nick (March 27, 2004). "Bishop Spared Prison for Leaving Crash Scene". The New York Times.
  11. ^ Hedding, Judy (September 2006). "Former Bishop Thomas J. O'Brien: Nothing--and No One--Is Sacred Anymore". About Travel. Archived from the original on July 11, 2014.
  12. ^ "Bishop Is Requesting Leeway in Sentence". The New York Times. April 7, 2004.
  13. ^ "Help Center - the Arizona Republic".
  14. ^ "Help Center - the Arizona Republic".
  15. ^ "Bishop Thomas J. O'Brien, retired bishop of Phoenix, dies at 82". August 27, 2018.
  16. ^ Kiefer, Michael; Burkitt, Bree (August 26, 2018). "Thomas O'Brien, Phoenix Bishop who hid priests' abuse, dies at 82". azcentral. Retrieved September 2, 2018.

External links[edit]

Episcopal succession[edit]

Catholic Church titles
Preceded by Bishop of Phoenix
Succeeded by