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US Bishop Resigns After Being Charged in Fatal Traffic Accident - 2003-06-18

The embattled Roman Catholic Bishop of Phoenix, Arizona, has resigned one day after police charged him with leaving the scene of a fatal accident.

A brief statement issued by the Vatican said Bishop Thomas O'Brien submitted his resignation and that Pope John Paul II had accepted it.

Bishop O'Brien was the leader of more than 400,000 Catholics in the Phoenix area. His resignation came one day after local police charged him with leaving the scene of a fatal hit and run accident that took place late Saturday.

Police said eyewitness accounts led them to the bishop's car, which they found with a damaged windshield. Bishop O'Brien reportedly told police he thought he had hit a large animal.

Two weeks ago, the bishop was able to avoid prosecution when he reached an agreement with prosecutors concerning sexual abuse of young people committed by priests under his supervision.

Under the agreement, Bishop O'Brien admitted that he transferred priests who had sexually abused minors to different jurisdictions without informing other clergy or parishioners.

The deal also stripped him of much of his administrative authority over priests in the Phoenix Diocese.

Kathleen Joyce is a professor of religion at Duke University in North Carolina who has closely followed the O'Brien case and other aspects of the sexual abuse scandal involving Catholic clergy throughout the United States. She says public pressure has been building on the Vatican to take tougher action against both the priests who commit sexual abuse and the bishops who protect them by their silence.

"They have been criticized so much over the past year and a half for their slow action in the sex abuse cases," said Ms. Joyce, "and in this particular case they are attempting to show that they now are taking their responsibilities seriously and are capable of taking swift action when necessary."

The Vatican has appointed an archbishop from neighboring New Mexico to temporarily take over the Phoenix Diocese until a new bishop is appointed.