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Photo by Heather SwaimOn Jan. 3, the Diocese of Orange settled 87 sex-abuse claims for $100 million, the largest settlement of its kind in the Roman Catholic Church's 2,000-year history. It was then, and perhaps only then, that readers of TheOrangeCountyRegisterfinally realized the scope of the scandal: in the past year, Orange County's paper of record left the investigations and breaking stories to the Weeklyand William Lobdell of the LosAngelesTimes,contenting itself with press-release rewrites and press-conference coverage. Emblematic of the Register'scoverage was a Dec. 5 person-in-the-pew story, in which reporter Greg Hardesty spotlighted Catholics who blamed the scandal on the "liberal elite."
But now, at last, the Registerhas focused its mighty resources on the scandal . . . in Alaska.
In a Sunday, Feb. 27, front-page story, Registerreporters Chris Knap, Rachanee Srisavadasi and Tony Saavedra spent 1,897 words retelling the horrors of the Diocese of Fairbanks, where 58 people have filed claims against priests. The local hook was John Manly, a Costa Mesa attorney who represented 30 Orange diocese victims and is now helping Alaska attorneys file civil suits and depose church leaders. But this is the same John Manly who earned the nickname "Mad Dog" by insisting Orange Bishop Tod D. Brown release all priestly personnel files—a bit of trivia glossed over by Knap, Srisavadasi and Saavedra.
So why would the Registerput three reporters on a Catholic Church sex-abuse story far, far away while continuing to steadfastly ignore the hometown fiasco in the Diocese of Orange?
The answer could be politics—specifically, GOP politics. Despite its professed libertarianism, the Registerhas served as a house organ to the local Republican Party for decades. Evidence? Click on to the Register'sblog, Orange Punch. In a Feb. 24 entry, Registereditorial writer Steven Greenhut simultaneously applauded Assemblyman Todd Spitzer's decision to drop out of the 2006 race for Orange County District Attorney against incumbent Tony Rackauckas and trashed Spitzer's anti-establishment reputation. "Would you want someone of his temperament running a law-enforcement office or to have subpoena powers?" Greenhut fretted. He didn't particularly endorse Rackauckas, criticizing the DA for not prosecuting former Santa Margarita High School principal and pedophile Michael Harris. "Still," Greenhut concluded, "it's always better to have a lethargic DA than an overly aggressive one, given the daunting powers of that office."
Perhaps it's coincidence that Greenhut lambasted Spitzer a couple of days before his colleagues' Alaska profile. But the two pieces revealed the fascinating fact that the Register'scoverage of Spitzer and the Church scandal ultimately protects the Republican Party. Registerreporters have never explained the ties between the Orange diocese and some of the party's icons, including:
•William Lyon, the longtime Republican mega-donor who gave Harris a job with a nifty nonprofit agency that builds affordable housing. That was shortly after the principal resigned in disgrace in 1994. He also allowed Harris to live in his home for a while.
•Former GOP chairman Tom Fuentes, who served as the diocese's communication director from 1977 to 1989. This was a time when Orange County's parishes were overrun with molesters and church officials fielded the most complaints of priestly abuse. Fuentes claims to not have known of any sex crimes during his tenure, but he directly supervised Jerome Henson, whom police had found years earlier in a Sacramento-area graveyard with a 13-year-old boy's legs wrapped around his head.
•Hamburger baron Carl Karcher, who has given thousands to statewide conservative causes over the years, but also gave money to St. Boniface in Anaheim even after its head priest, John Lenihan, admitted to molesting a girl in 1991.
It's ironic the Registerhas brushed off those connections, considering Manly, the very man to whom they devoted so much space, has long alleged the Orange County DA's office declined to prosecute or investigate suspected pedo-priests to shield the Republican Party. More understandable is the paper's disdain for Spitzer, a Catholic who has privately expressed disgust at the DA's mishandling of the sex-abuse scandal. The assemblyman and former county supervisor has infuriated Republican leaders and the Register'seditorial board for years, publicly bucking the GOP line on issues ranging from the El Toro Airport to affordable housing. GOP officials worried the formerly independent assemblyman would campaign for DA by focusing on the church molestation issue, a sentiment apparently shared by the Register.
With Spitzer now gone and no challenger in sight, Rackauckas gets a free pass on one of Orange County's most disturbing, far-reaching scandals. But the big loser is Greenhut. Once the Register'smost consistent, passionate critic of the church cover-up, Greenhut hasn't devoted a column to the issue since May. When Greenhut posted his Feb. 24 blog entry, the Republican and Catholic Church establishment no doubt sighed in relief—another dissenter quelled, another Registerwriter in their pocket.