*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.
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.
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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.
"So I—I just don't know what to do today," he continued. "I don't know. I mean—so I don't know. I don't know what to say. I . . ."
Jameson called off the deposition with the understanding Urell would return. But on Sept. 14, Urell's personal lawyer made an extraordinary announcement: His client could not give any more depositions.
"[Monsignor] Urell's physicians have determined that he is unable to finish his testimony as a witness in the case involving [Andrade]," Patrick Hennessey wrote in a press release. The reason: "an acute anxiety disorder caused by the strain of his prior responsibility for responding to complaints of sexual abuse by others." Hennessey finished his press release by stating that Urell's "compassion and concern for all who have been devastated by clergy sexual abuse has been evident in his ministry."
Urell remains in a Canadian treatment facility. Hennessey would later issue another press release, stating Urell would "require a minimum of three months of intensive treatment and hospitalization before he can be re-evaluated to determine whether he is able to withstand the rigors of a deposition." Manly is trying to hold the Orange diocese in contempt of court; a hearing is scheduled for next month.
* * *
The only reason anyone knows about Urell's breakdown is because Orange Bishop Tod D. Brown kept his mouth shut—and then tried to clamp it tighter, and Urell's for good measure.
In April, the Weekly obtained documents that revealed Brown had been accused of molesting a boy when he served at a Bakersfield church during the 1960s (see "Nailed?" April 24; the victim has since been identified by the Los Angeles Times as Scott Hicks of Fresno). No one with the Orange diocese ever returned calls for comment on that story, and Callahan tried to dismiss the Weekly's findings—he described the revelation to a judge as "not a compelling matter of public interest" since "it was not picked up in the legitimate press" and ran "only in a—and I use the word generously—publication that's handed out for creative massage parlors and coffeehouses and whose advertising runs to escort services and the like."
The silent treatment seemingly violated Brown's Covenant with the Faithful. This much-ballyhooed set of promises cost the Orange diocese nearly half-a-million dollars and swore, in part, that the diocese would "be open, honest and forthright in our public statements to the media, and consistent and transparent in our communications with the Catholics of our Diocese."
But Brown's secrecy would come back to bite His Excellency. Urell's deposition was already in the public record but had escaped the media's notice. When Callahan tried to seal Brown's Sept. 10 deposition in the Andrade trial, newspapers around the world reported that Brown was trying to block public knowledge of his undisclosed molestation allegation—which was already out in public thanks to the Weekly.
Brown's deposition, however, revealed much more about the church's continued efforts to withhold information. Manly attempted to put correspondence between Brown's alleged victim and church officials in the public record, but Callahan objected, reasoning they could be "inadvertently released to the press." He also complained that Manly was beating "[the Brown molestation allegation] to death."
And Callahan accidentally revealed a long-held diocesan secret. In 2004, Andrade successfully sued the Orange diocese after Mater Dei officials publicly identified him as a former employee who was dismissed for allegedly molesting a student. The settlement amount was kept under seal, but Callahan blurted out the figure—$100,000—during Brown's deposition.
Brown, for his part, told Manly he didn't want to announce the accusation against himself "because I knew it wasn't true" and "it wasn't up to me. . . . It was very embarrassing and very painful. And to be very honest, I think that kind of an allegation is difficult to deal with regardless of how innocent a person may be."
But then came the shocker: Urell was no longer in the country, and Brown didn't know why. Because of this, Callahan wanted to seal Brown's deposition.
Judge Gail Adler didn't agree and ordered Brown's deposition be made public, with no sealing of Urell's condition.
With their tactics revealed, the Orange diocese went on the counteroffensive. Callahan told Orange County Register columnist Frank Mickadeit on Sept. 13 that, despite all previous attempts to seal depositions or restrict Manly's scope of discovery, he relished taking the Andrade case before a jury because Jane C.R. Doe "[chose] to enter into a relationship." That same day, diocesan spokesman Ryan Lilygren released a statement that read, "Bishop Tod D. Brown has served with distinction for 43 years and is today widely recognized by Catholics and those of other faith communities as a progressive church leader committed to transparency and accountability."
Sex-abuse victims thought otherwise: They burned a copy of the Covenant with the Faithful outside Orange County Superior Court on Sept. 13.
Lilygren and his communications team wouldn't be deterred. On Sept. 14, he published a report on the Orange diocese's website (rcbo.org) titled "CLARIFICATION OF CURRENT MEDIA REPORTS" that purported to set the record straight on the recent travails of Brown and Urell. "The courts give great latitude to lawyers in the way they represent their clients, particularly in cases involving civil litigation," the report's introduction stated. "In the current case involving former Mater Dei basketball coach Jeff Andrade, certain lawyers have gone beyond the facts."
The report split the media's "spin" with the diocese's "facts." It claimed Bishop Brown never hid the allegation of sex abuse lodged against him in the 1990s. Besides being investigated by the Fresno diocese, "the unsubstantiated allegation had already been disclosed earlier in the press," Lilygren wrote. By "disclosed earlier in the press," Lilygren referred to the Weekly's five-month-old story—the same story previously ignored, and then derided, by the diocese.
The report argued that Bishop Brown didn't break his Covenant with the Faithful because it "does not require the disclosure of allegations which have no credible or factual basis." But in 2004, Brown publicly announced that Father Richard Delahunty—who at the time served at St. Nicholas in Laguna Woods—was being placed on administrative leave after a lawsuit claimed Delahunty molested a boy in the 1980s while at Santa Ana's St. Barbara's Church. Brown reinstated Delahunty after a year-long investigation because the diocese's sexual-abuse-misconduct board found the molestation allegations unfounded. Delahunty remains at St. Nicholas.
Lilygren also addressed Urell's unfinished deposition. "It was reported that Monsignor John Urell refused to complete his deposition," he wrote. In reality, "After nearly six hours of answering numerous questions, Monsignor Urell became so distraught that he was unable to finish his deposition; it remains an open question whether or not he will be able to complete it at a later date or to testify at trial."
Whether Urell returns or not, his shortened deposition has renewed interest in the monsignor's past. Mickadeit devoted a Sept. 20 column to Urell's testimony, describing it as "one more strike against the Covenant with the Faithful's vow of openness."
But the most damning evidence of Urell's direct involvement with the Orange diocese sex-abuse scandal is documented in the thousands of previously confidential priestly files that Brown released in 2005 as part of the diocese's $100 million settlement with molestation victims but that remain largely hidden in the archives of the victims' lawyers (you can find all the cited documents here). Brown has never committed to making these documents easily accessible to the county's 1.3 million Catholics.
In two cases, Urell tried to keep admitted pedophiles from returning to Orange County. After a victim alleged that a visiting Franciscan friar named Gary Pacheco molested him while on a trip to Disneyland around 1981, the Orange diocese whisked the Franciscan to the Servants of the Paraclete in Jemez Springs, New Mexico, a notorious treatment center for pedophile priests. At no point did diocesan officials alert authorities, as required by law.
After Pacheco's release, Urell wrote a letter to Pacheco's Franciscan superiors alerting them that the Orange diocese no longer wanted him. "Following the public accusations made against Father Pacheco, about which no judgment has been made, and the admitted professional imprudences about which Father Pacheco has spoken," Urell wrote, "this decision is made for Father Pacheco's good and the good of the Church." The Orange diocese would settle a suit against Pacheco in 1994, the terms of which remain sealed.
Another Servants of the Paraclete alumnus was Andrew Christian Andersen, one of only two priests ever criminally convicted for sex abuse in the Orange diocese's 30-year history. Church officials sent Andersen to Jemez Springs after the priest received a suspended sentence in 1986 for molesting at least four boys while serving at St. Bonaventure in Huntington Beach. According to records, Urell and then-Bishop Michael Driscoll thought of paying Andersen between $9,000 and $19,000 in 1994 to discontinue practicing as a priest.
"If [Andersen] refuses to get going with the laicization process, he receives none of this," Urell wrote to Driscoll, who is now the Bishop of Boise.
Urell was also directly involved in the cases of the Orange diocese's most notorious admitted pedophiles: Eleuterio Ramos and Michael Pecharich. A letter dated Oct. 2, 1987, shows that diocesan leaders asked Urell to forward a monthly stipend to Ramos while he ministered in Tijuana. "I send you my prayerful good wishes, Al," Urell wrote to Ramos. The priest was in Tijuana after admitting to molesting a teenage boy while at Anaheim's St. Anthony Claret in 1985, just one of the more than 25 children he molested in the Orange and Los Angeles dioceses over a 20-year career (see "King of the County Pedophiles," Dec. 14, 2005).
The diocese never reported Ramos' admission to the police.
Six years after the note, Urell thought to complain about Ramos continuing as a priest. A July 13, 1993, letter shows Urell asking Tijuana Bishop Emilio Berlie to remove Ramos from a children's ministry. "It is also Bishop [Norman] McFarland's opinion," Urell wrote, "that Father Ramos not serve anywhere in any capacity as a priest due to the serious nature of a previously settled lawsuit and the current allegations being made against him."
Throughout the 1990s, Urell approved diocesan-paid psychological treatment to at least three of Ramos' victims—in one case, at least $20,160 worth. His signatures are on checks as recently as March 15, 2002. Urell, however, wasn't necessarily pleased with the therapy. On Jan. 9, 2001, he complained to a psychologist that her approach to helping a Ramos victim "could be at odds with the Catholic Church moral teachings in the way you might suggest that [the victim] deal with this issue, which, in itself, if experienced outside of the marriage bond, is contrary to our Church teaching." It's unclear what Urell is referring to, but the victim's psychological profile revealed that he had a "sexual dysfunction" when attempting intimacy with his girlfriend.
A Nov. 7, 2001, memo to Urell from the psychologist stated she was "deeply impressed by the church's willingness to make reparation to [the victim] by paying for his therapy without any intervention of the judicial system (a process which [the victim] wants to avoid)." Nevertheless, Urell wanted to see "how we might come to some common agreement on the treatment plan and end time for it" because of the "high rate of charge." And a May 1, 2001, e-mail from Urell to Ken Fineman, the diocese's point man on psychological issues, expressed his concern at how much the treatment was costing the diocese. "We haven't given an end date yet for counseling. . . . We are still going two hours per week . . . every week," Urell wrote. "And this has been going on since September 2000. My concern is that he is getting the best help he can at $140 per hour."
When Manly asked Urell about Ramos on July 27, diocesan lawyers instructed their client not to answer.
According to the same priest personnel files, Urell's involvement with Pecharich is even more damning. In 1993, a woman told Urell that the priest had hugged her son strangely when Pecharich served at St. Bridget of Sweden in Van Nuys during the 1970s, and that other boys complained that Pecharich asked them to sleep in his bed. Urell told the woman her son would have to lodge the allegation in person. No meeting ever occurred, and Urell never asked Pecharich about the allegation.
The Orange diocese was already suspicious of Pecharich, since he had admitted to molesting a teen in 1983. But Urell wouldn't confront the priest until 1995, when another teenager complained that Pecharich hugged him too long. Nothing came of this meeting.
In a memo dated Aug. 17, 1996, Urell recounted his conversation with someone who claimed that Pecharich had grabbed his penis and slept nude with him when the two went camping in Wrightwood. Urell's notes quoted the victim as saying, "I'm glad to hear that [Pecharich] said yes—said he was sorry." Urell told the victim that Pecharich was undergoing therapy and that the Orange diocese had contacted Child Protective Services about Pecharich's transgression. The victim was "impressed, glad, happy [Pecharich] had admitted" and asked that Pecharich be removed from the priesthood.
Pecharich confessed to Urell that he was "emotionally involved" with this teen and promised to stay away. There is nothing in his personnel files, however, that suggests Urell ever contacted Child Protective services, or that Pecharich went through therapy. The priest was removed from the ministry in 2002, but not before Bishop Brown announced in a press release that "there have been no further instances of misconduct by Father Pecharich, nor any new accusations" since 1983.
There's one other case worth noting involving Urell. In 2001, Manly deposed him as part of a lawsuit filed by Ryan DiMaria (now an attorney in Manly's firm) alleging he was molested by Monsignor Michael Harris. Harris—the former principal at Mater Dei and Santa Margarita High Schools—was one of the most popular priests in Orange County history but had to resign in 1994 after he refused to undergo therapy for an attraction to teenage boys.
Urell told Manly that he was put in charge of following up on sex-abuse allegations lodged against Harris at the time of his resignation. But Urell merely asked Harris whom he should interview to second DiMaria's claims. He also confessed to attending a going-away party held for Harris by the Orange diocese and supporters. The host was Michael Pecharich.
"I guess some of the guys wanted to get together and say: 'It's over. You're leaving,'" Urell said in the 2001 deposition. "I can say now I believe it was inappropriate to go."
On July 27, Manly asked Urell about his dealings with Harris. Church lawyers wouldn't allow the monsignor to answer. Manly didn't mind.
"You know what?" Manly replied to no one in particular. "I'll just let the record speak for itself. I know what it was, and I know what he called [the dinner] last time. So we'll just leave it there."
Three minutes later, Urell cracked.
Note to readers: Many of the parts of this story involving Bishop Brown were previously reported on the Weekly's blog, Navel Gazing. Visit us at blogs.ocweekly.com/navelgazing for breaking news and even more diocesan shenanigans.
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