A Millstone Around Their Necks

Orange Diocese about to settle with sex-abuse victims for millions but will lose nothing

Photo by James BunoanFor 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 is on the cusp of achieving victory in its notorious sex-abuse scandal.

At press time, sources told the Weekly the Orange diocese will agree this week to pay somewhere between $90 million and $110 million to settle about 87 lawsuits alleging molestation at the hands of church employees. If they're right, it will be the largest diocesan sex-abuse settlement in Catholic Church history. The previous high was set last year by the Archdiocese of Boston, where a judge ordered then-Cardinal Bernard Law to dole out $85 million to 552 victims of pederast priests.

Despite the staggering sum, money was never really at issue. More important for Orange Bishop Tod D. Brown were information and prestige. After nearly two years of talks, the settlement will allow Brown to keep secret what many plaintiffs sought to make public—priests' personnel files. Victims claim those files will prove church complicity in the molestations. And Brown, according to members of his staff who spoke on condition of anonymity, will not offer an in-person apology to the victims of his pedo-priests.

Most of the multimillions are expected to come from the diocese's insurers, the 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 Nov. 30 letter to all Orange diocese priests. "For us, it will be very, very costly. But such a settlement would allow us, chastened, to move forward as a diocese."

"This settlement could've been obtained two years ago, when we started this whole process," countered a courtroom observer. "There has been absolutely no progress since then. They had sufficient money to fund the settlement then, but they waited and delayed and tried to wear the victims out. Everything else that victims sought was ignored. I'm sorry, [but] that's not okay. Bishop Brown had a responsibility to treat [the molestation victims] as members of the faithful. Instead, they were treated like crap, like human garbage, and no amount of money can make that okay."

Talks began 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 and finally collapsed last June, when the Orange diocese lowballed victims. By then, Brown had earned the enmity of Catholic America for purchasing estates and planning to build a $100 million cathedral—all while telling sex-abuse victims there was no money to pay them.

But on Nov. 29 and 30, Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Owen Lee Kwong ordered all individuals with molestation cases pending against the Orange diocese to his Los Angeles courtroom, announcing that both sides were close to a settlement. Lawyers for the victims weren't surprised at the sudden development: they were already prepping to depose witnesses, a roster that included everyone from Brown to former Orange Bishop Norman McFarland and former Orange County GOP chairman Tom Fuentes, who served as the diocese's communications director for 13 years.

"The truth is [the diocese] didn't want anyone to find out what they did," said John Manly, a Costa Mesa-based attorney representing the majority of the sex-abuse survivors. "If the faithful in the pews knew the truth, they'd run the hierarchy out on a rail."

Some sex-abuse victims have been adamant in forcing Brown and his retinue to release documents and take the stand. "But you can't tell [all the victims] to pull out of such a huge settlement offer," said a source familiar with the proceedings. "I'm glad for the victims that this may be over and [the amount] is satisfactory to them, but I'll never be happy about the manner in which all of this was conducted. These people were subject to spin, ridicule and whisper campaigns by Brown and the diocese—they should've never been subject to any of that. If you look at Matthew's gospel, Jesus tells the disciples it would be better for them to tie a millstone around their neck and drown in the sea than to harm a child. I wouldn't want to be Bishop Brown and have to answer for such conduct in the hereafter."

GARELLANO@OCWEEKLY.COM

 
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