Television Killed the Catholic Star

Given the chance to come clean on sex abuse, Bishop Brown chokesagain

Photo by James BunoanBishop Tod D. Brown had his moment in the national spotlight, the chance to prove his reputation as a church reformer is more than just the marketing creation of a New York PR firm to whom the Diocese of Orange has paid $90,000.

Instead, Brown choked.

On Feb. 27, the ABC news show Nightlinehosted the head of Orange County's 1.1 million Catholics as part of its coverage of a monumental report on priest-child sexual molestation within the American Catholic Church since 1950. The report, released that day by the New York-based John Jay Institute, revealed the names of priests who stand accused of sexually abusing minors. But here in the land of Father Junipero Serra, it's secrecy as usual. And now the whole country knows it.

After a brief lead-in showing Brown's infamous Jan. 18 Martin Luther rip-off (during which he nailed his "Covenant with the Faithful" to the door of Orange's Holy Family Cathedral), Nightlinecorrespondent Ron Claiborne went to business. He gave an excellent summary of the sex scandal that has plagued Catholic Orange County—named names, interviewed victims, even showed pictures of such notorious child rapists as John Lenihan and Michael Harris. Halfway through the piece, Claiborne bluntly asked Brown the question so many victims have asked for decades: Shouldn't church leaders have known and done something about pedophilic priests?

Brown was quiet for a moment, furrowed his brow, and then said slowly, deliberately, "I think you're correct." Then he fell silent. The silence continued—an uncomfortable, disturbing silence that might've lasted maybe seven seconds but felt like 28 years.

Offscreen, Claiborne was incredulous. "You said they should've known?" he asked Brown.

Brown seemed to search for words. "It doesn't make sense," he acknowledged, that diocesan officials had coddled criminals for so long. "And I think that in the past, [the importance of transparency] wasn't understood."

Brown still doesn't understand. Compare, for instance, an investigation released Feb. 17 by the Archdiocese of Los Angeles with a similar one issued by Orange County Catholic officials in early January. Both dioceses conducted in-house studies of all accused child-molesting priests in their respective histories for the John Jay Institute survey.

According to the Los Angeles report, 244 clergy members have faced accusations of molesting 656 children since 1930—almost nine per year. The culprits in the 28-year-old Orange diocese are substantially fewer: just 22 priests have allegedly abused 53 children—almost two per year. If such conclusions are correct, LA-area priests are roughly four times more likely to molest kids than their colleagues down here.

Before you heave a sigh of relief and send your kids back to the overnight camp with the parish youth pastor, consider the possibility that the Orange County report is a sham.

The Archdiocese of Los Angeles announced its findings in a 34-page analysis that includes: an introduction by archdiocese head Cardinal Roger Mahony; an admission of guilt by church leaders for covering up decades of abuse; a plea for forgiveness from the faithful; a thorough explanation of the evolution of church policy regarding sexual abuse; and a description of current civil and criminal cases pending against the archdiocese. Also included is a roll call identifying every priest, brother, seminarian or monk ever accused—name, years during which the alleged molestations took place, and the number of accusers per priest (available at www.la-archdiocese.org).

Despite all that, victims' groups have called the LA archdiocese report inadequate; in a Feb. 23 editorial, the Los Angeles Times said it was old news. More damning, a supplement to the John Jay Institute study excoriated LA Archdiocese head Cardinal Roger Mahony and his operation as "troubled."

Only the Orange assessment could make the LA report look good. Orange County's report came in the form of a one-page press release naming just 16 priests accused of sex with minors. The names of the accused are bunched together in one paragraph, one after another without explanation—no corresponding years of service or number of accusers. No apology from Brown. A subsequent Feb. 4 press release added six more priests to the total; that fax came out to half a page.

In some ways, Los Angeles investigators even outperform Orange investigators in covering the sex scandal in Orange County. Orange County Catholic churches were under the jurisdiction of the Los Angeles archdiocese until 1976, when the Vatican created the separate Diocese of Orange. To account for this, Los Angeles archdiocesan researchers included 11 priests accused of molestation who served in Orange County parishes before the 1976 separation; Orange diocesan officials identify only six of these. The Los Angeles report also lists four Orange County clergy members who weren't priests but belonged to religious orders that served in the Orange diocese even after the Orange diocese's founding; the Orange report lists none.

On the subject of such absolute fecklessness, Brown could tell Nightline's audience nothing. Claiborne mercifully ended the segment, and the director went back for a second time to video of Brown nailing to the church doors his empty promise of reform. Brown's seven seconds of silence spoke more eloquently.

 
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