The Roman Catholic Diocese of Phoenix will continue to provide a place in which Bishop Thomas J. O’Brien can carry out work in the church despite his felony conviction and pending sentence, the bishop’s successor pledged Tuesday.
"There is a great need for the Masses in our parishes, so I would see if he feels up to doing that," said Bishop Thomas J. Olmsted, who took over leadership of the diocese two months ago.
A solemn Olmsted held a 12-minute news conference within an hour after a Maricopa County Superior Court jury convicted the 68-year-old O’Brien of leaving the scene of a June 14 hit-and-run that killed Jim L. Reed, 43.
"This has been a long and difficult process for everyone involved, and I am grateful that it is over," said Olmsted, adding that he will pray for O’Brien, his family and the family of Reed, who was jaywalking and intoxicated when he crossed Glendale Avenue near 19th Avenue in Phoenix.
Olmsted said he did not watch any televised proceedings of the trial, in which O’Brien testified, and wasn’t "in a position to make a judgment."
Olmsted said O’Brien, who retired a day after he was arrested in June, appears to be entitled to the full rights and benefits of any retired priest. Word of the conviction will officially be communicated to the Vatican via Archbishop Gabriel Montalvo, the nuncio or Vatican ambassador to the United States.
Asked whether he would write a letter to the court seeking leniency in O’Brien’s sentence, the 51-year-old bishop said, "I haven’t had a chance to give that any thought. I would be willing to think about it."
Olmsted said he hopes O’Brien will continue to live in the diocese-owned bishop’s home in Phoenix.
"The house is of great historic importance because Pope John Paul II stayed there," he said. "I think we, as a diocese, want to keep it and have it available for posterity, and I would be grateful if he would live there."
Olmsted said he is happy at the Sts. Simon and Jude Cathedral rectory and will continue to live there.
The bishop said he has been talking about every other day with O’Brien, but not about the trial.
The Rev. John Cunningham, pastor of St. Mary Magdalene, a new parish in Gilbert, said he hovered over the radio Tuesday afternoon awaiting the verdict.
Cunningham called it a "terrible day" because O’Brien had been "our leader for 21 years, and he did a good job. He kind of built up the church. Those were years of tremendous growth — and then to end his career in disgrace, I feel very sad for him."
The bishop should not go to prison, Cunningham said.
"It’s a very dark day, a very dark time" for the diocese, said the Rev. Chris Carpenter, pastor of Christ the King Catholic Church in Mesa. "I hope the verdict brings peace and brings comfort to Jim Reed’s family, and in the long run, I hope it brings peace and a greater sense of justice and commitment to make sure these things don’t happen in the future on the part of our diocese and among the clergy."