By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
By Dennis Romero
For decades, the Catholic Diocese of Orange allowed child-raping priests to roam its parishes. For years, it covered up those crimes. For months, it stonewalled victims seeking justice.
Now the second largest Catholic diocese west of the Mississippi has achieved total victory in its notorious sex-abuse scandal.
Forget the staggering $100 million sum and the potential PR nightmare if the personnel files of pederast priests are released. Money and privacy issues were never important matters for Orange Bishop Tod D. Brown. Throughout two years of mediation, Brown’s only concern was to secure a reputation as a reformer and protect his most valued interests, and he succeeded magnificently.
In the wake of the momentous deal, many county Catholics are forgetting and forgiving Brown, who plans to build a $100 million cathedral and spent hundreds of thousands on a PR firm earlier this year to spin his pedo-lies. The media have already replaced the image of a stuttering, uncaring Brown who stumbled through a February Nightlineinterview with that of an empathetic church leader who unexpectedly showed up at the mediation talks Thursday night and consoled a room of sobbing survivors. Brown also endeared himself to sex-abuse victims nationwide by seeming to defy Cardinal Roger Mahony, the most powerful Catholic prelate in the United States and perhaps its most ardent opponent of clerical sex-abuse reform.
Most crucially for Brown, however, the settlement means that some of Orange County’s most powerful individuals will never have to disclose their part in a sex-abuse scandal that touched Orange County from the lowliest barrio parish all the way to the chambers of Capitol Hill. And by shielding them, Brown ensures his political and financial future in one of the country’s wealthiest, most religious regions.
In May, Mahony called the bishops of California to a meeting in San Francisco to discuss the Catholic sex-abuse scandal. There, according to those who attended, he urged the bishops to stand united, disclose no personnel files, and work together for a statewide settlement rather than allow each diocese to settle its cases individually.
Only one bishop vetoed the strategy: Brown, Mahony’s former classmate at St. John’s Seminary in Camarillo during the early 1960s.
Brown’s decision stems from his fortuitous circumstances. While lawyers suing the Los Angeles Archdiocese and other dioceses allege that the sitting bishops knowingly transferred pederast priests from parish to parish, nearly all of Orange County’s clerical sex-abuse cases predate Brown’s 1998 assumption of the Orange bishopric. The personnel files that Brown plans to release and the cases he settled, then, serve more as historical documents and instances of previous coddling administrations rather than a reflection of current policies toward child molesters.
With his actions, Brown set a precedent and contrast with which Mahony must now contend. Mahony is reportedly furious with his once-close friend. (See "Blessed by the Devil" on preceding page for another view of Mahony’s thinking.) What’s most ironic about Brown’s betrayal is that the bishop owes his career to the cardinal. When previous Orange Bishop Norman McFarland retired in 1998, he opposed the appointment of Brown — then bishop of Boise — because Brown had a reputation as being liberal on doctrinal issues. Mahony, however, maneuvered to have Brown appointed, hoping to consolidate his power over the bishops of California.
Brown may have saved his soul with the $100 million settlement, but he also lost his most powerful patron. His once-steady ascent in the American Catholic Church hierarchy is over.
But a falling-out with Mahony was the least of Brown’s worries; more important to the bishop was his Orange County legacy. In Boise, Brown quickly became unpopular for closing parishes after the diocese there faced a funding shortage. The $100 million settlement will undoubtedly bring similar problems to Orange County’s 1.1 million Catholics — on the Sunday after the settlement, Brown only told the congregation at Holy Family Cathedral in Orange that the financial losses would be "very painful."
Most of the multimillions will come from the diocese’s seven previous insurers and primarily from its current one, Ordinary Mutual; coincidentally, Brown sits on the company’s board. His Excellency will raise the rest from the diocese’s extensive holdings and investments — upward of $270 million at the beginning of this year, according to church financial reports.
"We have kept our commitment to the victims of these crimes by remunerating them, with the help of our insurers, at a level that will be, in our view, significant, generous and compassionate," wrote Father Mike Heher in a confidential November 30 letter to all Orange Diocese priests on the eve of the settlement. "For us, it will be very, very costly. But such a settlement would allow us, chastened, to move forward as a diocese."
Even before the settlement, however, Brown was already looking forward. Brown had long planned for a proposed $100 million cathedral near Costa Mesa’s ritzy South Coast Plaza mall, but many wealthy donors refused to give money until the sex-abuse scandal subsided. Last December, the diocese established two nonprofit corporations to assure donors that their tithes wouldn’t go toward any sex-abuse payouts. During the summer, Orange priests received a letter from Auxiliary Bishop Jaime Soto asking them to identify five wealthy patrons each in anticipation of a major fund-raising push for the cathedral. And in August, the O.C. Weekly revealed that Brown purchased a $1.1 million home for himself near the proposed cathedral’s site to replace his current $1.1 million two-story mansion in Santa Ana, during a period in which the diocese was already cutting staff jobs.