Bad Moves

The bishop broke his covenant. The former chancellor broke down. But the truth about the Diocese of Orange's sex-abuse scandal is emerging in court anyway

*A correction was made to this story on Oct. 1.

Monsignor John Urell enjoyed a blessed life until this summer. The Tustin High graduate joined the Catholic Diocese of Orange County as a priest in 1978 and zipped up the church's hierarchy—first as the secretary to the bishop, then as a chancellor, and finally as a vicar general. The last two positions placed him in the inner circle of county Catholicism, making him one of the men in charge of the second-largest Catholic diocese west of the Mississippi.

Urell stepped down as vicar general in 2003 to serve as the pastor of St. Norbert in Orange. Parishioners loved him; in fact, one, Supervisor Bill Campbell, nominated Urell to the Orange County Human Relations commission in 2004.

Monsignor John Urell, from a videotape of his deposition.
Monsignor John Urell, from a videotape of his deposition.

But the priest also had a direct role in the Orange diocese's darkest episode, leaving a paper trail that previously hasn't been thoroughly examined, one the Weekly has obtained. From 1988 through 2002, Urell was in charge of investigating sex-abuse allegations lodged against diocesan priests. The complaints poured in while Urell was in charge—at least 25, by his admission. He interviewed victims, helped arrange therapy for them—but usually assisted superiors in covering up pedophilia in county parishes.

As the Orange diocese sex-abuse scandal exploded in 2004, as church officials eventually paid victims $100 million for their suffering at the hands of county priests and released documents showing the hierarchy's culpability, Urell largely escaped scrutiny. But the monsignor finally reckoned with his past on July 27.

The setting: Orange County Superior Court, in a pretrial deposition for a lawsuit filed by a former Mater Dei High School student against the Orange diocese and Jeff Andrade. Andrade was a coach in the school's powerful boys' basketball program until Mater Dei officials dismissed him in 1996 after allegations emerged that he had sex with a student (see "Hardwood Babylon," April 27, 2006). Andrade denied the charges at the time, but he admitted to having sex with the then-15-year-old female student last year (identified in court records as Jane C.R. Doe) in a deposition for her lawsuit.

In his July 27 deposition, Urell claimed he never knew about Andrade's guilt or even any molestation allegations against the coach until the diocese's attorney recently told him.

Plaintiff's attorney John Manly—who represents Doe and has previously sued the Orange diocese regarding clerical sex abuse—didn't buy it. He asked Urell whether other church employees were accused of child molestation while he handled complaints, but the monsignor didn't answer, on advice of church attorneys. Manly persisted. He grilled Urell about whether the Orange diocese knowingly transferred pedophile priests during his tenure. Again, diocesan lawyers instructed Urell to remain quiet.

Manly then asked a curious question: "Do you still have your calendars?"

"No, I do not," Urell replied.

"When did you throw those away?" Manly asked.

"At the end of each year, I throw it away."

"Well, that's odd," Manly shot back, "because we got your calendar from 1994 in 2001 in the [Ryan] DiMaria case. So, how did that happen?"

It turned out Urell had thrown away all of his personal calendars in 2002, the same year the Orange diocese began receiving multiple civil lawsuits alleging sexual abuse by county priests. The calendars detailed his day-to-day work for the diocese.

Urell denied Manly's charge that the monsignor destroyed evidence that prosecuting lawyers could use against the diocese. Manly asked more questions; Urell replied, "I do not recall" five straight times.

Manly had had enough. "Do you have any memory problems?" he asked Urell.

"Well, actually, I'm—yes."

An incredulous Manly asked Urell to explain. At the beginning of the deposition, Manly had specifically asked the monsignor if he had any memory problems; Urell said no. Diocesan lawyers objected to Manly's request, but Judge Robert Jameson instructed Urell to respond.

"Well, you know when I worked at Marywood [the diocesan headquarters] for those years that I was there, many of those years, a good number of those years were in a tremendous variety of ministries," Urell replied. "And one of them, the most painful for those who came forward and for me who had to try to help them and manage these things, was all these allegations of sexual abuse.

"And I can't tell you what it is, but I just don't remember them anymore," Urell continued. "I try to forget them. It is a horrible—I don't forget the people, but a horrible chapter in their lives and in mine. And so I don't remember a lot."

Manly asked Jameson for a break. Twenty-five minutes later, church lawyer Peter Callahan told the judge that Urell couldn't continue—he was "overcome. . . . He is not in a psychological state where he can listen to the questions and give answers to complicated questions."

"Do you think this is a temporary circumstance, or is this permanent?" Jameson asked Urell.

"I—I don't know," Urell replied. "I actually, until about two months ago, thought this whole kind of thing was over for me. It's never over for people who get victimized. I know that, I know it. So, I don't know. I mean, I can't hold my head up at the moment, and in the last number of questions Mr. Manly's asking, I cannot—I can't figure out where we're going. Not where we're going, but what I'm supposed to answer with it.

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