By Gustavo Arellano
By OC Weekly Staff
By R. Scott Moxley
By Michelle Woo
By Gustavo Arellano
By Gustavo Arellano
By Gabriel San Roman
By Gustavo Arellano
Illustration by Bob AulNow that the Diocese of Orange has agreed to pay $100 million to victims of its pedo-priests, Bishop Tod D. Brown is busy cobbling a new persona for himself. Goodbye, bumbling protector of molesters; welcome, O valiant reformer!
The national media bought this false idol immediately at a Jan. 3 press conference held in Los Angeles Superior Court announcing the settlement, the largest in the history of the Roman Catholic Church. Fawning reporters didn't bother to ask Brown any probing questions—they found their answers instead in the form of a cardinal-red folder eagerly distributed by diocesan spokesman Father Joseph Fenton that contained an official statement, a FAQ sheet and a full-color glossy of the bishop. Photographers and cameramen quickly clicked and filmed Brown accepting the tearful, grateful hugs of victims, images they splashed across TV screens that night and front pages the following day.
As always, The Orange County Register—the once-critical paper that nowadays reads like the Orange diocese's official newsletter, the Orange County Catholic—spun it the Church way. "Some hailed Brown as a hero" was religion reporter Ann Pepper's summation of the man. His Excellency, obviously reveling in his newly scrubbed celebrity, solemnly told Pepper, "If I've been able to be of any assistance in bringing [the sex-abuse cases] to a conclusion, I am most grateful for that."
In a statement published in many parish bulletins last Sunday, Brown wrote to Orange County's 1.2 million Catholics, "We can stand tall having kept all our pledges to the victim survivors and having reformed our way of dealing with this horror in our Church. Let's be the Church that is known for keeping its promises and being trustworthy, the Church where what you see is what you get, no spin or excuses."
But that period of clarity is over. An internal church document obtained by the Weekly shows the Orange diocese accepted the $100 million settlement not to, as Brown told the faithful, spare victims from "years of emotionally difficult litigation," but because Church officials knew just a minute before a civil court would "return devastating jury verdicts against the diocese."
The astonishing revelation appears in a confidential memo authored by Father Michael Heher and distributed to diocesan priests. Titled "How the Diocese of Orange Came to Settle the Sexual Abuse Civil Claims," the nine-page document "is the account of how [the settlement] came about." It retells key moments during the past two years it took for Church officials to settle all 90 claims against the Orange see: the deals with plaintiffs' attorneys, the internal arguments and the scads of lawyers enlisted toward saving the diocese's reputation.
It's a fascinating document, primarily because it portrays a self-congratulatory Church hierarchy furiously spinning the settlement process in its favor. "Bishop Brown made it clear," Heher wrote early on in the document, "that he wanted these cases to be handled 'in a prompt, fair and compassionate manner.'" Heher goes on to whitewash Brown's consistent stonewalling over the two years of negotiations in turning over priest personnel files, depicting the attorneys for sex-abuse victims as "well organized and backed by significant financial resources," and concluding with the claim that Brown "reiterates his commitment to an open relationship with the public on these matters."
But Brown is already violating his pledge with this memo, which Heher e-mailed to diocesan priests with the caveat, "This is for your information, not for publication [emphasis in the original]." And two crucial passages show why.
On the second page, Heher discloses that plaintiffs had to fill out a questionnaire and record a DVD interview about their alleged abuse, which was then turned over to the diocese. After reviewing the information, according to Heher, "it was clear that many of the victims had suffered horrific sexual abuse and that a number of offenders were serial pedophiles or efebophiles [sic]."
This realization occurred sometime in 2003, Heher wrote. Yet diocesan leaders continued to coddle suspected priests with such disregard for victims that the two sex-abuse survivors appointed to the diocese's Sexual Misconduct Board resigned in protest that year; one, 33-year-old Joelle Casteix, memorably called the board "a public-relations sham." A couple of months later, Brown trashed Casteix's critique as "false and misleading."
Heher's memo reveals more incriminating knowledge. By January 2004, according to Heher, diocesan officials "knew that there were slightly more than 50 claims with the potential to return devastating jury verdicts against the diocese." Yet instead of moving forth on a settlement offer, Brown stayed quiet when his fellow California bishops issued a statement in July endorsing a challenge of Senate Bill 1779, the landmark California law that suspended the civil statute of limitations on sex-abuse claims for 2003 and allowed molestation victims to sue their predators.
Brown was actually the only California bishop to oppose the move, but this bit of info didn't come out until after the Orange diocese agreed to the $100 million settlement. So why the mum mouth? Easy: if the courts overturned SB 1779, then all cases pending against the Orange diocese would've become moot. But after a judge rejected the California bishops' SB 1779 challenge, Brown faced no option but to settle lest the cases go to trial, where the Orange diocese knew it wouldn't win.
"[Let's be] the Church where what you see is what you get, no spin or excuses," Brown now says. Yeah, right. Hell, even Bill O'Reilly would laugh at that.