Sexual Reeling

How the Register blew the Orange Diocese sex-abuse story

Photo by Sarah CallenderAt the beginning of this year, local victims of priestly pedophilia expected The Orange County Register to destroy the Diocese of Orange for good. After all, 2003 was a banner year for the daily, a year in which the Register consistently scooped its competitors in exposing the pederast-coddling sins of church officials. Some of its more shocking revelations included:

Register opinion writer Steven Greenhut disclosing in his July 20 Sunday column the case of Father Cesar Salazar, whom diocesan officials refused to remove from St. Joseph's in Santa Ana despite the discovery of child pornography on his computer. They finally did after the public uproar that followed the publication of Greenhut's piece.

•Reporter Jim Hinch's Sept. 14 story on how Mater Dei High School officials never reported to law-enforcement agencies allegations of student molestations at the hands of the Santa Ana parochial school's teachers and sports coaches.

•A two-part, front-page Registerexposé based on a police report in which Father Eleuterio Ramos admitted to molesting at least 25 boys during his tenure in the Orange diocese from 1976 to 1986.

But as the Orange diocese sex-abuse scandal nears its disgraceful end—Orange Bishop Tod D. Brown has agreed to pay $100 million to 87 victims of his child-raping employees, the largest clerical sex-abuse settlement in Catholic Church history—some sex-abuse victims are furious at the Register. When victims needed Orange County's paper of record the most, they say, the Registerfailed them.

In a year filled with disturbing leak after disturbing leak—Brown's secret purchase of a $1.1 million estate for himself and push for a $100 million cathedral up the street from South Coast Plaza; the hiring of a mysterious PR firm to spin pedo-lies for at least $300,000 more than what Brown originally admitted; and the non-disclosure of a $500,000 settlement in 2003 against Father Daniel Murray—the Register's roster of reporters broke nothing. Nearly every Registerstory on the Catholic sex-abuse scandal in 2004 regurgitated facts previously reported in the Los Angeles Times or the OC Weekly. And those few involving original reporting—such as the April conviction of Father Gerardo Tanilong during the spring for molesting a 15-year-old girl or Brown's infamous pounding of his "Covenant with the Faithful" on the door of Orange's Holy Family Cathedral—were little more than rewrites of press releases with some color added.

"The Register missed a golden opportunity," said Joelle Casteix, a 33-year-old Corona del Mar resident who has emerged as the unofficial voice of Orange County's Catholic sex-abuse survivors. In June 2003, Greenhut broke the story of how she resigned from the diocese's Sexual Misconduct Board in protest of its victim-ignoring ways, dismissing it as a "PR sham."

"It's the Register's responsibility as the major paper in the county to handle all the sex-abuse stories, especially considering so many Catholics read it," said Casteix. "The Register had the opportunity to run with it and to effect change in the diocese. And they simply didn't. It was completely disappointing this story went completely unnoticed there for an entire year."

As a telltale sign of the Register's shoddy coverage, consider the Dec. 3 edition, published the day after lawyers for the church and victims announced the $100 million settlement agreement. While local radio and television newscasts featured interviews with both sides all day and the Los Angeles Times ran a thorough front-page story, the Register only included a 281-word blurb—with three authors sharing the byline!

Sources at the paper that bills itself as being on Orange County's side blame the anemic coverage on the reassignment of Hinch, who handled most of the sex-abuse-scandal stories last year. He now works at the paper's Sacramento bureau.

"Jim was passionate about finding out the truth, and he hated it when the diocese lied to him," said Casteix. "He got a promotion—it was well-deserved. I just didn't realize it would create a journalistic vacuum in covering these cases."

Taking his place in the sex-abuse coverage was longtime Registerstaffer Ann Pepper, whom victims will always remember as being on vacation when the settlement was announced.

But some blame must also fall upon Greenhut, whose passionate jeremiads against Brown and his pedo-spinning became must-reads over the course of the sex-abuse scandal. Many church critics particularly relied on Greenhut to interpret the diocese's various transgressions for the Register's notoriously conservative readers. But this year, Greenhut devoted only one full column to the sex-abuse scandal in January and wrote four unsigned editorials on the matter since. None matched the explosive influence of his 2003 efforts.

"No doubt, I haven't written much about the church over the summer and fall, but there is no deep, dark reason for that," Greenhut wrote in an e-mail to the Weekly. "When you consider that I focus on politics and public policy rather than religion, I think the amount of coverage I've devoted to the church is significant."

The Register's lack of pederast-priestly print is further disappointing considering its heritage. The Orange diocese sex-abuse fiasco arguably began in 1991, when Mary Staggs—now known as Mary Grant, western regional director for Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests—revealed to the Register that Father John Lenihan molested her in the late 1970s while she was a teenager attending Mass at St. Norbert's in Orange. No Orange County newspaper had ever dared out a local priest as child molester before. The Register's exposé on Lenihan—at the time a wildly popular priest at St. Boniface in Anaheim—was considered such a touchy subject at Grand Street that then-editor/now-publisher N. Christian Anderson took the extraordinary step of writing an accompanying explanation to the story.

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