Thomas Joseph O’Brien.
The name may have slipped from memory, as the media has moved on to cover other “hot,” Church-related scandals as well as to cover the ecclesiastical politics associated with the upcoming Ordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops in October 2015.
O’Brien is the Bishop Emeritus of Phoenix, resigning in 2003, 4 days after he struck and killed a 43-year-old man in a hit-and-run car accident. In 2004, O’Brien was found guilty of leaving the scene of a fatal accident and was sentenced to 4 years’ probation, 1k hours of community service, and required to surrender his driver’s license for 5 years.
Thomas Joseph O’Brien is the first American Catholic bishop convicted of a felony.
This was a delicious scandal for some in the American Catholic media. For example, the National Catholic Reporter (NCR) jumped right on the story, here and here, providing the coverage it deserved. After all, committing vehicular manslaughter is no trivial matter.
Compare that scandal to a more recent one involving Maryland’s second-highest ranking Episcopal bishop who was charged in January 2015 with drunken driving and vehicular manslaughter after fatally striking a cyclist late in December 2015. Prosecutors charged the bishop with leaving the scene of an accident, criminal negligent manslaughter, failure to remain at the scene of an accident resulting in serious injury and death, using a text messaging device that resulted in an accident, and 3 drunken driving charges. If convicted of all charges, the bishop could face 20+ years in prison. The bishop’s bail was set at $2.5M. A trial is scheduled for February 6.
Sadly, this bishop also appears to have had problems with alcohol, charged by police in 2010 while yet a priest with drunken driving. Police also found wine, liquor, and marijuana in the car. In exchange for pleading guilty to the drunken driving offense, the drug charges were dropped and the priest received probation.
The most recent charges came less than 1 week after the national Episcopal Church announced it was opening an investigation into the bishop. Why? The 2010 charges weren’t shared with the clergy and lay church members who were charged with selecting the bishop from among four finalists. Then, too, another complaint was filed last week calling for national Episcopal Church leaders to open an investigation to determine whether the bishop violated church law in the hit-and-run accident.
Oh, by the way, it just so happens this bishop is female. She is Heather Cook, the suffragan bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Maryland.
A search of the NCR archives from 2008-2014 using the key terms “bishop” “Thomas O’Brien” and “Phoenix” revealed 1161 articles in which the bishop was identified. A search using the key terms during the same period “Heather Cook” revealed 0 (nada, zippo) articles. Nothing about her being ordained a female priest or bishop and deafening silence about her accident.
It isn’t that the NCR doesn’t cover the topic of female bishops. Another search of the NCR archives since 2008 using the keyword “female bishop” revealed 23 articles. Another search using the keyword “suffragan bishop” revealed 4 articles discussing female bishops. True, the NCR didn’t cover Bishop Cook’s ordination.
That said, these data do raise a question: Is focusing exclusively upon the errors of male bishops and overlooking those of female bishops what it means for the NCR “in all our management and publishing decisions, to evaluate carefully the needs of the faith community we serve and to respond effectively to those needs?”
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