Thomas J. O'Brien (bishop)

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His Excellency, The Most Reverend
Thomas Joseph O'Brien
Bishop Emeritus of Phoenix
Church Roman Catholic
Archdiocese Santa Fe
Diocese Phoenix
Appointed November 9, 1981
Installed January 18, 1982
Term ended June 18, 2003
Predecessor James Steven Rausch
Successor Thomas Olmsted
Ordination May 7, 1961
Consecration January 6, 1982
by John Paul II, Eduardo Martínez Somalo, and Lucas Moreira Neves
Personal details
Birth name Thomas Joseph O'Brien
Born (1935-11-29) November 29, 1935 (age 82)
Indianapolis, Indiana
Motto To build up the Body of Christ
Styles of
Thomas Joseph O'Brien
Mitre (plain).svg
Reference style
Spoken style Your Excellency
Religious style Bishop

Thomas Joseph O'Brien (born November 29, 1935) is an American bishop of the Roman Catholic Church. He served as Bishop of Phoenix from 1982 to 2003, and is currently its bishop emeritus. He was the first American Catholic bishop to be convicted of a felony.[1]

Early life and ministry[edit]

O'Brien was born in Indianapolis, Indiana, and attended St. Meinrad Seminary. Feeling a call to the priesthood from an early age,[2] he was ordained for the Diocese of Tucson, Arizona, on May 7, 1961.[3] He then served as an associate pastor at Immaculate Conception Church in Douglas.

In 1964, O'Brien was transferred to territory that would later become the Diocese of Phoenix,[4] as an associate pastor at St. Theresa Church and later at St. Gregory Church. He was named pastor of St. Catherine Church in Phoenix in 1979, and also served as vicar general for the Diocese.[2]

Bishop of Phoenix[edit]

On November 9, 1981, O'Brien was appointed the third Bishop of Phoenix by Pope John Paul II. He received his episcopal consecration on January 6, 1982 from John Paul II himself, with Archbishops Eduardo Martínez Somalo and Lucas Moreira Neves, OP, serving as co-consecrators, in Rome. He was formally installed as Bishop of Phoenix on the following January 18, and selected as his episcopal motto, "To Build Up the Body of Christ."[5]

During his tenure, O'Brien earned a reputation as a successful fundraiser, builder of schools, and advocate for the poor.[2] He was also 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 formerly chaired the Committee on Marriage and Family.

Sexual abuse scandal[edit]

In 2002, Maricopa County prosecutors initiated a grand jury investigation into charges of sexual abuse by Catholic priests in the diocese of Phoenix. Bishop O'Brien was a target of that investigation for allegedly covering-up allegations against other priests. The prosecution ended when the bishop admitted he had sheltered abusive priests.[6] O'Brien agreed to cede his authority over diocesan sexual abuse policy in exchange for immunity from indictment for obstruction of justice.[7] 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 from 1977 to 1982.[8]

Hit-and-run accident[edit]

On June 14, 2003, less than two weeks after signing the sexual abuse agreement with prosecutors, O'Brien struck and killed 43-year-old Jim Reed in a hit-and-run car accident.[9] A driver behind O'Brien reported O'Brien's license plate number to the police.[10] Police also discovered a dent in a fender and a crack in the windshield of the bishop's Buick Park Avenue.[9] O'Brien later claimed he did not report the accident because he thought he had hit a dog, cat, or rock. O'Brien was arrested for leaving the scene of an accident and released on $45,000 bond.[9] He resigned as Bishop on June 18, 2003.[3]

On February 17, 2004, O'Brien was found guilty of leaving the scene of a fatal accident after a three-and-a-half-week-long trial.[10] On March 26, 2004, he was sentenced to four years' probation and 1,000 hours of community service, and required to surrender his driver's license for five years.[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]

Catholic Community Foundation award[edit]

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 intended award became public, there was outrage that the foundation would honor a bishop who resigned in disgrace, had admitted involvement in the sexual abuse scandal, and who had been convicted of the felony of hit-and-run involving death. A few days later, O'Brien declined the award, and the foundation, stating that it did not anticipate the adverse public reaction, has written an apology to the community.[14]

See also[edit]


External links[edit]

Episcopal succession[edit]

Catholic Church titles
Preceded by
James Steven Rausch
Bishop of Phoenix
Succeeded by
Thomas J. Olmsted