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Catholic Bishops Face New Controversy


U.S. Catholic bishops meet this week near St. Louis, Missouri, amid new controversies involving the conduct of Catholic clergy in the United States.

The latest controversy to rock the Catholic Church is the arrest of Bishop Thomas O'Brien of Phoenix, Arizona. Bishop O'Brien is charged with leaving the scene of a fatal hit and run accident on Saturday.

When eyewitness accounts led police to inspect the bishop's car on Monday, they found his windshield smashed in. Bishop O'Brien reportedly told police he thought he had hit an animal and drove off.

"I sincerely regret reports I have received about Bishop O'Brien being involved in a fatal accident, said Chris Gunty, a spokesman for the Catholic Diocese of Phoenix. "The sympathy of all of us in the Diocese of Phoenix as well as our prayerful support goes to the victim's family. The diocese will cooperate fully in any police investigation and no further statement will be made while the investigation proceeds."

The accident involving Bishop O'Brien occurred two weeks after he signed an agreement with prosecutors admitting that he had allowed priests under his supervision to work with young people even though he was aware of sexual misconduct allegations against them.

Phoenix is one of many Catholic dioceses around the country reeling from a sexual abuse scandal involving clergy that has shaken the faith of Catholics and led to multi-million dollar lawsuits.

"This is just one more problem in the public perception of not just a lack of church leadership, but a church leadership that is running away from problems just as Bishop O'Brien allegedly ran away from that hit and run accident," said Deal Hudson, editor of Crisis magazine, a Catholic monthly, who was interviewed on CBS television. "This incident has a deep and profound effect on Catholic laity. There is already the question in the air about the moral authority of many bishops, the question of their character, the question of their leadership."

Earlier in the week, the chairman of a church-appointed panel seeking to resolve the sexual-abuse scandal resigned after critical remarks aimed at Catholic bishops. Former Oklahoma Governor Frank Keating last week compared some American church leaders to organized crime, for allegedly continuing to cover up sexual molestation of minors by clergy.

His remarks caused a stir from some Bishops and other members of the National Review Board, a group set up by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops to monitor how priests and bishops are complying with new polices aimed at countering sexual abuse.

Even though he stepped down from his post, Mr. Keating said he would not apologize for his remarks, saying they were "deadly accurate."