Nailed?

Bishop Tod Brown and his undisclosed molestation accusation

Orange County Catholicism hasn't quite been the same ever since Bishop Tod D. Brown made like Martin Luther and hammered a document to the doors of Holy Family Cathedral in early 2004. That document, titled "The Covenant With the Faithful," featured seven theses that Brown claimed represented a new era of transparency for a diocese long plagued by priestly pedophilia and its cover-up by Church and even county leaders.

He especially pointed the faithful to the fourth thesis: "We will work collaboratively with all members of the diocese to promote an atmosphere of openness and trust, and empower them as partners in parochial affairs and thereby create a new era for our Church in Orange County."

But the promises quickly proved a PR sham, as His Excellency reverted to secrecy and stonewalling in dealing with the victims of priests and lay workers who once roamed the county's parishes with little fear of punishment. When Brown did as he promised and finally released the names of accused priests serving in the Orange diocese just a month after his public nailing, it came in the form of a one-page press release. The names were bunched together in one paragraph, one after another, without explanation—no corresponding years of service or number of accusers. And while the Orange diocese settled with more than 90 victims for $100 million at the end of 2004, it still fought with lawyers to block the release of personnel files that revealed church complicity in molestations.

Nevertheless, Brown continues to show off his "Covenant With the Faithful"; it remains tacked at Holy Family Cathedral and a picture of the occasion is prominently featured on the Diocese of Orange's website.

But according to church records, that single nail seems to have caught Brown in a lie—or at least an inconsistency between his public pronouncements and the paper trail.

Documents obtained by the Weekly reveal that church officials have investigated an allegation of sexual abuse against Brown—yet Brown has never uttered a word on the matter.

On July 3, 1997, a man we'll call Larry (the Weekly doesn't disclose the name of alleged sexual-abuse victims without their permission) wrote to the Diocese of Fresno stating, "I was sexually molested by Father Todd [sic] Brown when I was 12 years old in 1965," while the future bishop served at Our Lady of Perpetual Help in Bakersfield. During psychological counseling, Larry claimed to realize that "the abuse perpetrated on me by Father Brown was not a fantasy, but a detailed memory."

He asked that the Diocese of Fresno "investigate the possibility that Father Brown is still perpetrating himself on children under the guise of trust as a priest."

Fresno Bishop John T. Steinbock responded to Larry a week later. Steinbock asked Larry to undergo a psychological examination before proceeding with any investigation. The bishop also noted that "the priest in question has been ordained 34 years, has led an exemplary life, and has never had any such allegation against him in all those years." At the time, Brown was the bishop of Boise.

The next correspondence between Larry and the Fresno diocese occurred on Aug. 6, 1997. In that letter, diocesan director of human resources R. Patrick Gordon wrote that a preliminary investigation "does not reveal any inappropriate behavior beyond your letter," and that Larry should not "be concerned about other persons" having possibly suffered abuse at the hands of Brown. On Sept. 29, Gordon wrote again and repeated what Steinbock had previously expressed: there were no other records of molestation allegations against Brown, save for Larry's. "His [Brown's] life, as we know it, has been an extremely public one and subject to scrutiny and investigation," Gordon wrote. "We are confident that should there have been any other complaints similar in nature to your memory, they would have been discovered and addressed."

This isn't the first time Steinbock's name has been associated with the Orange diocese's sex-abuse scandal. He graduated from St. John's Seminary in Camarillo—a notorious breeding ground for pedophile priests—in 1963, the same year as Brown, and served as auxiliary bishop in the Orange diocese in the mid-1980s. Steinbock also played a key role in sending Orange County's most notorious pedo-priest, Eleuterio Ramos, to Tijuana after Ramos admitted to church officials that he had molested (see "King of the County Pedophiles," Dec. 14, 2005). Larry claims that Steinbock told Larry he had notified Brown about the matter.

The Weekly called Jesse Avila, director of communications for the Fresno diocese, to verify the existence of Larry's letters. "This is the first time I heard of this," Avila replied and promised he'd look through the diocesan archives for copies of the letters. He didn't respond by press time.


Five years after his correspondence with Steinbock, Larry wrote to church officials about Brown again. On March 10, 2002, Larry sent a letter to Archdiocese of Los Angeles Cardinal Roger Mahony about his alleged abuse at the hands of Brown. By this time, Brown was bishop of the Diocese of Orange and beginning to deal with the sex-abuse scandal he inherited from previous bishops. Larry claimed Gordon told him that Brown "was an administrator and that he had no more contact with children."

It's not clear why Larry wrote to Mahony, since the cardinal's only connection with Brown is that both graduated from St. John's just a year apart. Nevertheless, Mahony's office responded: on March 26, 2002, then-Vicar for Clergy Craig A. Cox wrote to Larry that he "profoundly regret[ted] that you yourself experienced childhood sexual abuse. . . . While our human condition means we can never expect to root out all sinfulness, we will do our best to prevent child abuse and to assure the integrity of the Church's ministry. Please pray for the success of these efforts." No record exists, however, of whether Cox or Mahony told Brown about the allegation. Larry also wrote to Boston Cardinal Bernard Law, but his office never responded.

Brown isn't the first bishop accused of sexual abuse. In the early 1990s, a man accused Archdiocese of Chicago Cardinal Joseph Bernardin of abuse but later recanted. Mahony was accused in 2002, but Fresno police quickly dropped the charge after the accuser couldn't provide evidence other than her admittedly schizophrenic memory. As a result, Mahony included himself in the Los Angeles Archdiocese's 2004 "Report to the People of God," a recounting of all the Los Angeles-area priests ever accused of sexual abuse.

Brown, however, has never publicly disclosed the allegations that Larry made against him. The Orange diocese did not return calls from the Weekly seeking comment for this story.

Sources familiar with the Orange diocese sex-abuse scandal told the Weekly they've never heard of a molestation allegation lodged against Brown; and if he were to honor his "Covenant With the Faithful," he would have already disclosed such an accusation. The sources also question why Brown wouldn't have publicly acknowledged the existence of Larry's complaints—if, as Larry claims, Steinbock alerted Brown about the matter in 1997.

"I've reviewed the documents," says Ryan DiMaria, a Newport Beach-based lawyer with the well-known firm Manly & McGuire and himself a victim of sex abuse at the hands of an Orange County Catholic priest. "Based on my prior experience, they appear authentic and very troubling."

Larry is currently mulling his legal options. He admits to not having approached the Orange diocese or Brown with his story, but only because "it's been a process for me to even talk about the matter." He expects waves of skepticism to greet him, but Larry doesn't care. "I can handle whatever may come," he says.  

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GARELLANO@OCWEEKLY.COM

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