Turn That Smile Into a Brown
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, Browns only concern was to secure a reputation as a reformer and protect his most valued interests, and he succeeded magnificently.
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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 Nightline interview 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 Countys 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 countrys 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, Mahonys former classmate at St. Johns Seminary in Camarillo during the early 1960s.
Browns 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 Countys clerical sex-abuse cases predate Browns 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 Mahonys thinking.) Whats most ironic about Browns 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 Browns 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 Countys 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 dioceses seven previous insurers and primarily from its current one, Ordinary Mutual; coincidentally, Brown sits on the companys board. His Excellency will raise the rest from the dioceses 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 Mesas 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 wouldnt 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 cathedrals 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.
"Its purchase is but one expression of the decision of the bishop to no longer remain frozen in time by the threat of the civil suits against the diocese," Heher wrote to Orange priests in a confidential September 3 memo leaked to the press. "Yes, we want a prompt, fair and compassionate resolution of these suits . . . but thats not all were doing."
The $100 million settlement isnt expected to dampen Browns enthusiasm for what critics deride as the "Tod Mahal," where Brown plans to relocate the dioceses headquarters, housing for retired priests, and even build catacombs. But one sex-abuse victim thinks that parishioners currently smitten with the idea of a trailblazing and compassionate Brown will revolt if he cuts church programs and classes as many of the faithful fear.
"If they move on with the cathedrals construction, I think theres going to be a lot of dissension," says Joelle Casteix, a 33-year-old Costa Mesa resident who was molested by a choir teacher while a student at Mater Dei High School during the 1980s. "The laity in Orange County has a big voice the dioceses own survey shows that they dont want the cathedral. Whether Brown listens to their concerns is another matter, but its going to be there."
So with a frayed relationship with Mahony and a possible aggrieved congregation, why would Brown bother to settle so suddenly? Brown initiated the mediation talks in early 2003, when the Orange Diocese agreed to closed-door negotiations with lawyers representing sex-abuse victims in order to avert the ignominy of public trials. Church officials promised victims a "swift decision," but talks dragged on for 18 months due to Browns insistence on withholding the dioceses personnel files. Negotiations finally collapsed last June, when the Orange Diocese low-balled victims with an offer of about $40 million.
But on November 29 and 30, Judge Kwong ordered all individuals with molestation cases pending against the Orange Diocese to his Los Angeles courtroom, announcing that a settlement was imminent. If the two sides didnt settle, Kwong vowed, trials would begin within weeks.
"Terrible things did happen to many of those who filed claims against our diocese and now these victims will not have to relive them in court, which would likely have injured them further," Brown wrote to his priests in a December 3 letter explaining why he settled. "Additionally, the sordid details of these crimes would not be splashed across the media day-after-day, which would be painful for all Catholics and those who care about our church."
"The truth is [the diocese] didnt want anyone to find out what they did," countered John Manly, a Costa Mesabased attorney who represented 11 cases and is also representing victims in Tucson, Alaska and Northern California. Just a week before the settlement, he deposed Mahony for a sex-abuse case dating back to Mahonys days as the bishop of Stockton. "If the faithful in the pews knew the truth, theyd run the hierarchy out on a rail."
The prospect of Brown and his retinue taking the stand frightened the Orange Diocese hierarchy, but there was a more pragmatic reason behind Browns willingness to settle. The Orange Diocese has long nurtured a symbiotic relationship with Orange Countys most powerful businessmen and politicians the powerful gave money, the church bestowed honors and gathered parishioner votes. For example, longtime Orange County Republican Party chairman Tom Fuentes, the man most responsible for making the county a GOP stronghold, served as the dioceses communications director from 1977 through 1989. During these years, Fuentes also earned such prestigious religious distinctions as the Knight of Malta and the Knight of the Holy Sepulchre.
Attorneys for the sex-abuse victims were relishing the opportunity to depose Fuentes, since his tenure as communications director also coincided with the period that most of the 87 plaintiffs claimed their molestations occurred. Fuentes also supervised a priest, Jerome Henson, whom diocesan officials accepted in 1983 despite knowing of an 1981 incident in which Sacramento-area police caught Henson in a graveyard at night with a 13-year-old boys legs wrapped around his face.
Other planned secular witnesses read like a Whos Who of Orange Countys rulers: mega-developer William Lyon, hamburger magnate Carl Karcher, Orange County District Attorney Tony Rackauckas, Meg Waters, the woman behind the powerful PR firm Waters & Faubel, and other prominent people with close ties to the Orange Diocese. If the plaintiffs lawyers had deposed these men and women, the shock waves wouldve reverberated throughout Orange County and donations to the Catholic Church wouldve ended. In this county of milk and honey, angry crowds and cardinals are fine, but no money? That equals no power and that wouldve been a penance even too severe for Brown.
To read Gustavo Arellano's year-long coverage of the Orange diocese sex-abuse scandal, visit www.ocweekly.com
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