Blessed by the Devil

Photo by AP/Wideworld

Observers of the Catholic Church sex scandal saw for the first time last Friday what passes for mass closure in these parts. The Diocese of Orange agreed to pay $100 million to 87 victims of 31 priests — minus 40 percent for the victims’ lawyers.

Comes out to less than a million per victim, after the lawyers get paid, but it is a record settlement by the Orange Diocese, which has been crippled for the past year by revelations of corrupt priests and bishops and seemingly complicit D.A.s and cops. Eclipses the $85 million Boston settlement and every other diocese in the country, where for decades priests have buggered little boys, while vicars, bishops and cardinals let them.

Victims had huddled in a Los Angeles courtroom corridor for days, beckoned by their attorneys, who after haggling with the church behind closed doors for two years sensed that the end was near. The end, according to sex-abuse victims in Los Angeles who have weathered a similar ordeal but are dreading the same result, of the most choreographed, pre-ordained and self-serving charade the California legal system could muster.

Then came the kicker: They hugged. Not just each other. They hugged Orange Bishop Tod Brown, and thanked him for ending their suffering. Not the suffering over being molested in their youth by men they were raised to revere as their conduit to God. That is something they will live with the rest of their lives, along with depression, alcoholism and dysfunction, some better compensated than others. No, they thanked him for ending a process they joined on a promise from their lawyers to fight for exposure, accountability and justice, but which resulted in none of the above.

Also in this issue: Turn That Smile Into a Brown How the Orange bishop put the deal together by Gustavo Arellano

You can’t buy justice. No priest will go to jail in Orange County for raping a child. No church official will have to answer for allowing such crimes to occur, or denying knowledge of molester priests in their ranks. Local power brokers such as GOP leader Tom Fuentes, diocese spokesman during an era of heavy pedophile traffic, and William Lyon, a developer whose home became a haven for an accused priest, will never have to testify under oath about what they knew. Less than six months ago, victims’ attorneys swore to depose "everyone in sight" and fight in court "if it takes a lifetime" to document every move the diocese made in shielding pedo-priests.

Hardly. The record pact merely states that the diocese will relinquish its fight to conceal internal documents that show the extent to which officials ignored reports of molestation, allowing priests to molest again. Since the clergy scandal erupted in Boston, in 2002, eventually ousting former Cardinal Bernard Law, such documents have been the Holy Grail for victims. Such documents, a Los Angeles judge has ruled, are evidence of crimes against children. In Boston, the public knew what it knew because lawyers for the 552 victims and the media forced disclosure of church documents, which showed the whole, sordid, ugly truth — before settlements were reached, not after. Similar revelations have cleansed dioceses in New Hampshire, Phoenix and Tucson.

When will such documents come out in Orange? Nobody knows. How? Wait and see. Will it matter when they do? Not likely.

"Money is what this has always been about," says one detractor of the settlement process, a victim of priest abuse in Los Angeles. "It would be vain for any victim to see their suffering as a means of forcing change in the church."

Last Thursday night, as the courthouse vigil ended, Raymond Boucher, lead attorney for the victims, and Peter Callahan, an attorney for the Orange Diocese, offered a joint statement: "The exact terms of this settlement including the amount for each victim are still being worked out," they said. "As far as documents are concerned, the Diocese has already produced what was required," Boucher continued. "They will be provided to the court for a ruling on what can be legally produced."

Translating, that means neither the lawyers for the diocese nor lawyers for the victims had the courage or conviction to prove their clients’ cases. It means they don’t want responsibility for showing the public, in the writings of the Catholic hierarchy, what church officials knew and when they knew it. Washing their hands of the matter, the lawyers chose resolution with no accountability over a more complete, honest resolution.

Minutes away from the courthouse, Mike Hennigan, the embattled lawyer for Cardinal Roger Mahony and the Los Angeles Archdiocese, which faces more than 500 similar lawsuits and has harbored hundreds of alleged pedophiles since 1930 — sometimes in concert with Orange — waited. He waited to be informed that it was over, for reporters to call him and ask for comment. He told them he really had no involvement with the Orange negotiations. And then he likely called Mahony to deliver the news: Orange, the first in the state, is settled. One down.

California’s management of the clergy scandal in its 12 dioceses has contrasted from other states such as Massachusetts, Arizona and Kentucky, where bishops resigned, priests went to jail, and then lawsuits were settled. In Boston particularly, nothing about the scourge of priest pedophilia went unexamined. But after a backroom deal struck by plaintiffs’ lawyers and Mahony’s lawyers in December 2002, in which they agreed to avoid an open-court battle, and following orders from the California Judicial Council to consolidate thousands of lawsuits across the state, secret negotiations have kept the public in the dark, or confused by leaks and rumors.

Critics have cited two reasons for this clandestine approach. One is the influence of Mahony, whose vulnerability is complicated by his authority under church law, which extends from San Diego to Monterey. No bishop can be appointed in California without Mahony’s approval. At least six bishops are his friends, former classmates or former employees. That’s not counting exiled former Bishop Patrick Ziemann, a Mahony protégé who allegedly was aware of pedophiles running amok in the Orange Diocese and Los Angeles in 1980, who served as Mahony’s auxiliary bishop from 1987 to 1992, and who scandalized the Diocese of Santa Rosa in 1999, when he was accused of coercing sex from a priest. The District Attorney’s Office was investigating Ziemann until the U.S. Supreme Court struck down California’s criminal child-abuse statute in 2003. Church documents showing what Ziemann knew, and what Mahony and others knew of Ziemann, are key incentives for Mahony to avoid a public airing.

The second is the influence of Chief Justice Ronald George of the state Supreme Court. No judicial fiat to force thousands of sex-abuse victims into private mediation could be accomplished without his say-so. Faced with a flood of lawsuits due to a change in the statute of limitations in 2003 — which was heavily lobbied for by trial lawyers Ray Boucher and Larry Drivon, who control more than half the state’s clergy sex-abuse cases — George could see chaos if every victim sought their day in court. Add the influence of the church in Los Angeles, where virtually no non-Catholic has served as presiding judge, and the goal was clear: keep a lid on the scandal until settlements could be reached.

Orange was supposed to be different. Plaintiffs’ lawyer John Manly, an outspoken Catholic who adversaries refer to as "Mad Dog Manly," promised to see justice done. "Documenting clerics’ files is the real goal," Manly told reporters. "It’s the only reason to sue the church," said Joelle Casteix, who alleges her teacher abused her from 1986 to 1988 at Mater Dei High School. "If I settled without documents, it would feel like dirty money," Casteix told O.C. Weekly in June.

Manly’s fight yielded signs that the Orange County establishment was complicit in the protection of priests and bishops. He compared Bishop Tod Brown, who released church files for mediation purposes but fought for months against public disclosure, to Judas. In July, a group of devout Catholics were calling for Brown’s ouster because of his refusal to go public with the truth. Manly rejected a $40 million settlement offer from the church and threatened to depose "anyone remotely associated" with the clergy scandal. During one such deposition he got disgraced former bishop of Tucson Manuel Moreno — a close friend of Mahony’s — to admit to knowing about accused priests who were allowed to take children to Disneyland. Manly exposed former bishop of Orange Norman McFarland for bringing accused pedophiles into Orange from Reno and Sacramento.

Meanwhile, reporters in Orange County exposed law-enforcement authorities, prosecutors and influential laymen as key sources to be questioned about what appeared to be a countywide cover-up.

Former Anaheim Chief of Police Roger Baker, O.C. Weekly reported, misplaced a taped confession by accused priest John Lenihan that he molested a 13-year-old, then held on to a copy of the tape provided by the alleged victim until after the criminal statute of limitations expired. Republican Party chairman Tom Fuentes, a spokesman for the diocese from 1977 to 1989, personally supervised a priest brought into the diocese in 1984 despite knowledge of a Sacramento police report of the priest being caught in a graveyard with a 13-year-old boy’s legs wrapped around his face. Mega-developer William Lyon allowed Monsignor Michael Harris, a defrocked cleric and subject of a $5.2 million sex-abuse settlement in 2001, to live in one of his homes, after Harris resigned as principal of Santa Margarita High School in 1994 for allegedly molesting students. Orange County District Attorney Tony Rackauckas refused to file criminal charges against Harris despite an apparent wealth of evidence and complete cooperation from Ryan DiMaria, the recipient of the $5.2 million settlement, who now is an attorney with Manly’s firm.

Manly and Drivon swore they would depose these O.C. insiders. But as last week’s negotiations simmered to a boil, Brown gave Manly and company 100 million reasons to call it quits. Suddenly victims and their lawyers were licking the sandals of a bishop who was publicly ridiculed for nailing "Seven Theses" for reform to the cathedral door in January, criticized for never enacting those reforms when required by the DiMaria settlement, and lambasted for spending $350,000 on a New York public relations firm while planning to build a lavish cathedral. The diocese has been sitting on $270 million in investment reserves, and according to abuse survivors, Boucher had told them the Orange lawsuits were worth $300 million. But enough was enough. "I’m proud of what I did," Manly said of the settlement. "It’s over, it’s over, it’s over," cried one exhausted victim.

Legal experts will debate the fate of the documents, including the "balancing test" between public interest and privacy rights of priests that a judge will use to decide what to release — and when. They will analyze the effects of insurance carriers on the process in Orange and in Los Angeles, as the public grows increasingly weary of the church saga. Yet poignant questions remain: Will the Archdiocese of Los Angeles come clean with its internal records before putting a large enough hunk of money on the table for victims and their lawyers to bite on? Does the Orange settlement bode ill, or well, for Mahony? And, will victims in Orange, none of whom objected to the settlement, one day regret not having public vindication and proof of their claims, before they signed away their legal rights for a cash settlement — minus 40 percent for their lawyers?

Sources close to the negotiations want the media and the public to believe that by approving a landmark settlement and promising not to fight the release of church documents — which may not be released until after Los Angeles has settled its cases — Brown has thrown Mahony under the bus. Brown’s proposed letter of apology to each victim also has been cited as a classy touch, whereas Mahony’s lawyers are still threatening scorched-earth tactics, such as a challenge to the state law that allowed thousands of lawsuits to be filed in 2003. Said one observer, "Everyone knows Mahony didn’t want Brown to settle like this. What does this say about the cardinal’s standing? He’s fucked."

But in the hierarchical manner of the Catholic Church, Mahony made Brown. And despite the church’s insistence that its bishops act independently, it’s not likely the settlement was done without approval from the Vatican, or Mahony. Most likely, Mahony supports the Orange settlement and is banking on very few documents seeing the light of day.

Survivors in Los Angeles have seen enough of the cardinal’s handiwork — not to mention their own lawyers at work — to know how the film ends. "I’m not sanguine about the prospects for public vindication or emotional satisfaction," says Udo Strutynski, an attorney in Alhambra who alleges abuse by his priest when he was a teenager.

Strutynski has drifted from the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests (SNAP), a nonprofit group that has grown through its affiliation with Boucher and Drivon, who match donations to the cause and have provided free office space to the group. "SNAP is interested in its own financial well-being, and so are attorneys, by nature," Strutynski says. "Victims say they want the glory of a show trial, but not many understand that is not a practical possibility. I’ve spoken with victims who have settled. They say they’ll keep Bishop Brown’s apology letter in their bathroom in case they run out of toilet paper."

Lee Bashforth, a SNAP leader whose lawsuit is one of 544 being mediated in Los Angeles, says, "Seventy-five percent of the victims want the truth to come out, and the rest don’t care as long as the money is right. This works out well for the Diocese of Orange. Now the judge can stall releasing the documents. He’ll say, ‘We can’t release these while Los Angeles is still negotiating.’ Or it will be some other line of bullshit. Then he’ll go on vacation for two weeks and nothing will happen. Insurance companies will get out their checkbooks and help the archdiocese sweep everything under the rug. It’s no coincidence they were about to depose Tom Fuentes in Orange County before settling."

Bashforth says settlement talks have turned into a war of attrition. "Lawyers on both sides have worn victims down," he says. Victims never envisioned settling their cases, Bashforth says, then waiting for a judge’s approval on what to release. "If that’s the way they structure it in Los Angeles, I’ll have even less faith that there will ever be any sense of truth and justice. But that’s how the lawyers envision it. They took on more cases than they could handle and knew all along they had to rely on settlement."

Callahan, attorney for the Orange Diocese, says it would be irresponsible to release documents about priests without protecting their privacy rights. But that ignores two things: The church has already turned its back on pedophile priests, and a judge’s ruling in a criminal proceeding has characterized church documentation of priest sexual abuse as evidence of a crime. Still, Callahan insists, "All the polemics about documents has to do with Los Angeles, not us. They’ve disclosed these half-assed summaries, and we’ve turned over everything from day one." The Los Angeles Archdiocese has resisted turning over actual files but has proposed posting summaries of Los Angeles priests’ files on its Web site. A lawyer for area priests has filed objections with the court.

"If money gets paid out before documents are disclosed, the documents will have no value," Strutynski concludes. "In Boston, they published the documents first. And if you understand that this is really about the money, then you understand that going public with the documents and a threat of a jury trial only raises the ante. My problem with the whole thing is that the attorneys don’t tell us anything. They don’t trust us. And the church still has a cover-up mentality."

Asked about the chances he’ll see his case pressed to the fullest, rather than packaged for a massive closeout sale, Glendale SNAP leader Steven Sanchez replied, "Slim to none, and slim is on a bus on his way out of town."


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