updated 3/26/2004 7:27:04 PM ET 2004-03-27T00:27:04

Bishop Thomas O’Brien was sentenced to four years of probation Friday for a hit-and-run that killed a pedestrian and destroyed O’Brien’s career as head of the Phoenix Diocese.

O’Brien, 68, is believed to be the first Roman Catholic bishop in U.S. history to be convicted of a felony.

He was also ordered to perform 1,000 hours of community service, including hospital visits to severely injured and dying people, and his driver’s license was suspended for five years. The clergyman could have gotten as much as three years and nine months behind bars.

Judge Stephen Gerst said the conviction alone was a significant punishment for a public figure like O’Brien.

“He will bear the quiet glances and whispers of others for the rest of his life,” Gerst said.

O’Brien declined to comment at the courthouse after the hearing. Outside his home, he told a local radio station that he got “a good sentence.”

He was found guilty in February of leaving the scene after he hit Jim Reed, 43, with his Buick. He claimed that he thought he had hit a dog or that a rock had struck his windshield.

O’Brien’s attorney, Patrick McGroder, said the bishop appeared relieved. “Now he can go back to devoting his life to other things,” McGroder said.

“Justice was served to an innocent man,” added O’Brien’s sister, Jeanne Dearing.

Reed’s family left the courthouse without commenting.

Maricopa County prosecutors had asked for six months in jail and four years of probation. Chief prosecutor Rick Romley said Gerst sent a message the court system gives prominent people special treatment.

“The fact that Bishop O’Brien is humiliated and may suffer the whispers of embarrassment of his fellow citizens offers little solace to the children, the mother and extended family of Jim Reed,” Romley said.

Last week, O’Brien asked Gerst for probation and said he could still serve Catholics in Arizona as a priest. He also apologized to Reed’s family, saying: “I know there is no one to blame for this but me.”

O’Brien led the diocese’s nearly 480,000 Catholics for 21 years, but stepped down in June after his arrest in the crash.

Just weeks earlier, prosecutors announced that he had struck a deal to avoid prosecution on obstruction charges for protecting child-molesting priests. Under the deal, O’Brien agreed to no longer handle abuse claims.

Reed was drunk and jaywalking the night of June 14 when O’Brien hit him on his way home from celebrating Mass. The crash left a giant spider-web crack in O’Brien’s windshield and Reed lying in the street.

O’Brien then drove the two miles back to his house and parked in his garage.

The bishop testified that he heard a loud crash but never saw anyone in the road. The defense further argued that dim lighting, headlight glare and the victim’s dark clothes made him hard to see.

Had he seen the pedestrian, O’Brien testified, “I would have stopped because that’s the human thing to do. I couldn’t imagine not stopping.”

But prosecutors argued that O’Brien knew or should have known he hit someone. He did not call police even after a diocese official told him investigators believed the car may have been involved in a deadly accident.

Bishop Thomas Olmsted, the diocese’s new leader, said O’Brien has an open invitation to participate in the church and would be welcome to celebrate Mass.

“I am relieved and grateful that Bishop O’Brien will not be going to jail,” said Olmsted, who said he continues to pray for Reed’s family as well.

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