Original URL: http://www.azcentral.com/arizonarepublic/local/articles/0313obrien13.html

Tears flow in court
The Arizona Republic
Mar. 13, 2004

Joseph A. Reaves

Presentencing hearing emotional for all

Courtrooms are often places of pain.

But for a few hours Friday, a crowded fourth-floor courtroom in downtown Phoenix held hurt enough to fill a lifetime.

There was a trembling Native American woman keening for her dead son.

And the sobs of a boy reading a hand-scrawled letter to a father he will never see again.

There was the misery of mothers weeping for sexually abused sons.

And the drawn breath of a man, standing before his wife and the world, telling how he was molested by a priest he loved.

The scenes played out Friday in a presentencing hearing for Bishop Thomas J. O'Brien, former head of the Phoenix Roman Catholic Diocese.

O'Brien, 68, was convicted Feb. 17 of leaving the scene of a fatal accident that claimed the life of pedestrian Jim L. Reed last summer.

Judge Stephen A. Gerst of Maricopa County Superior Court ordered a pair of presentencing hearings before deciding O'Brien's punishment March 26.

The bishop faces anywhere from probation to 45 months in prison. A presentencing report recommends six months in jail.

At Friday's hearing, Reed's family was joined by relatives of sexual-abuse victims in calling for tough penalties. Community leaders and relatives of the bishop begged for leniency.

"This man has given his life to this community," said Michael Bidwill, vice president of the Arizona Cardinals and a lifelong Catholic.

Jim Reed's 65-year-old mother, Lillie, wept and let out several high-pitched wails during the seven minutes she spoke.

"I would like you to give him the maximum sentence," she told Gerst in words uncharacteristically blunt for a Navajo woman raised to be soft-spoken and forgiving.

Lillie Reed speaks no English. Her words were relayed through Alfred Yazzie, a Navajo translator.

Yazzie's deep, bass voice was like a muffled drum beneath Lillie's keens. He spoke so softly he barely could be heard. But no one needed translation to understand Lillie's suffering.

Bailiff Camille Simon was so moved that she clasped her hands until her fingers turned white. Three of Jim Reed's sisters wept. So did at least one priest, a half dozen of O'Brien's friends and the bishop's sister Jeanne Dearing.

O'Brien's attorney Tom Henze lowered his reading glasses, sat up straight and listened intently to clipped Navajo sounds he couldn't recognize, but clearly respected.

Lillie's appearance was one of the most dramatic moments of a moving day. But there were others.

Reed's girlfriend, Flora Mendoza, stood in front of Gerst flanked by the two sons she had with Reed and read from a letter one of them wrote in school.

"I miss my dad so much," Austin Reed wrote. "He used to take us to the park and play. I'm very angry that you took my dad from me."

Besides Reed's relatives, the most gripping presentations came from two women whose sons were molested by priests and a man who was abused by a priest decades ago. All three told of how they reported their assaults to O'Brien and were admonished to keep silent.

"I was told it was not my place to judge. Let the Lord judge," said Victor DiGiovine, who was molested by a priest in a Phoenix parish in 1987 and was later told by O'Brien to attend a counseling session with his attacker.

"I was asked to forgive him and he was asked to forgive me - for what I can't say."

DiGiovine was telling his story publicly for the first time. His wife sat in the back of the courtroom weeping and being comforted by Paul Pfaffenberger, head of the local chapter of SNAP, Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests.

O'Brien showed no emotion during the hearing. Many supporters and relatives were moved to tears.

Jim Dearing, the bishop's nephew, said he was frustrated that O'Brien has been portrayed as "someone who is arrogant, aloof and insensitive."

"Nothing is farther from the truth," Dearing said. "To characterize him as someone who is aloof and above the law is not right."

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