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.
Also in this
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 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.
“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 that’s not all we’re doing.”
The $100 million settlement isn’t expected to dampen Brown’s enthusiasm
for what critics deride as the “Tod Mahal,” where Brown plans to relocate
the diocese’s 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 cathedral’s construction, I think
there’s 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 diocese’s own survey shows that they don’t want the cathedral. Whether
Brown listens to their concerns is another matter, but it’s 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 Brown’s
insistence on withholding the diocese’s 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 didn’t
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] didn’t want anyone to find out
what they did,” countered John Manly, a Costa Mesa–based 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 Mahony’s days as the bishop of Stockton. “If the faithful in the
pews knew the truth, they’d 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 Brown’s
willingness to settle. The Orange Diocese has long nurtured a symbiotic relationship
with Orange County’s 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 diocese’s 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 boy’s legs wrapped
around his face.
Other planned secular witnesses read like a Who’s Who of Orange
County’s 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 would’ve reverberated throughout Orange County —
and donations to the Catholic Church would’ve ended. In this county of milk
and honey, angry crowds and cardinals are fine, but no money? That equals no
power — and that would’ve 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