Meet the New Bishop . . .
Cirilo Flores rarely pursued discipline of molesting priests while serving on important Church board
As expected, Catholic Diocese of Orange Bishop Tod D. Brown chose a Latino to replace his longtime auxiliary bishop, Jaime Soto, who left last year to become the Bishop of Sacramento. Cirilo Flores gets anointed to his new position March 19 at St. Columban’s Church in Garden Grove, and church watchers expect the Corona native to succeed Brown when His Excellency retires. Local media coverage and the diocese’s P.R. machine made much of Flores’ Stanford Law School degree, his bilingualism and his experience serving in multiple church leadership positions, as well as being the longtime pastor of St. Anne’s in Santa Ana.
These reports only briefly mentioned Flores’ stint on the Orange diocese clergy-personnel board. One of the most important councils in the church hierarchy, the board is in charge of helping clergy with personnel matters and advises the bishop about priests—and is thus privy to the day-to-day happenings of the Catholic Church. And like his predecessor Soto, who distinguished himself by personally advocating for leniency the few times the Orange County district attorney’s office bothered to prosecute priests accused of sex crimes, Flores also played a major role in the Orange diocese’s crippling sex-abuse scandal.
Flores served on the board from 1995 until this year, a period that also happens to coincide with the Church learning about many cases of priestly sex abuse—but never bothering to discipline the offenders until the cases became public. The inaction of the clergy-personnel team wasn’t surprising: Flores’ peers on the board during this time include such sex-abuse-scandal luminaries as Michael McKiernan (Brown’s longtime secretary, who once told a parishioner that a priest possessing child-pornography images didn’t violate Brown’s zero-tolerance sex-abuse policy), Daniel Murray (on whose behalf the Orange diocese settled a $500,000 sex-abuse lawsuit in 2004 without alerting parishioners) and John Urell, a man who was so knee-deep in covering for molesting priests as Brown’s point man on the issue that he suffered a nervous breakdown during a deposition about his role (see “Bad Moves,” Sept. 27, 2007).
There remain few priests in Orange County untainted by the scandals, but the selection of Flores signifies the worst tendencies of Brown’s regime, according to attorney John Manly, who has battled the Orange diocese in civil court for nearly a decade. “Because he has served on the clergy-personnel board, he can be trusted to keep secrets,” Manly says. “That is the most critical quality they look for. When you dig deeper, beyond his law degree and that he’s Latino, it’s a cynical pick. It’s just unbelievable that they can’t find anyone in that organization to be a good bishop. It’s bad enough you have Brown as a bishop; now you have two who have covered up pedophilia.”
The diocese did not return a call from the Weekly seeking comment for this story.
Below are just some of the many cases that passed through the clergy personnel board while Flores served:
MICHAEL PECHARICH: Church officials already knew Pecharich was a molester when Flores joined the clergy-personnel board—he admitted a 1983 incident with a teenage boy years before. But in 1995 and 1996, the diocese received complaints from two teens who claimed Pecharich sexually abused them. Pecharich admitted to one allegation, yet there is no record of the diocese ever contacting Child Protective Services, as required by law. The priest was finally removed from the ministry in 2002 after admitting to another molestation, but not before Brown announced in a press release that “there have been no further instances of misconduct by Father Pecharich nor any new accusations” since 1983.
John Lenihan: He had just started at St. Edward the Confessor in Dana Point when Flores began on the board in 1995. The popular Irish priest had already admitted to inappropriately touching a girl in the 1970s, yet he kept ministering. Lenihan wasn’t pushed out of the priesthood until 2001, when he admitted to having sexual relations with female adults.
Franklin Buckman: He left St. Polycarp in Stanton in 1986 for the Diocese of Baker, Oregon. However, Church officials continued to classify him as a diocesan priest until his retirement in 2002. Two years later, the Orange diocese admitted they knew Buckman had twice been accused of sexual abuse yet never alerted the Diocese of Baker about the allegations.
Denis Lyons: Church officials had long suspected he was a pedophile, going so far as to send him to counseling in 1994, but they let him continue as a priest. In 2005, the diocese settled civil lawsuits against Lyons to the tune of $4.09 million but has yet to defrock him.
Dominic Nguyen: In 2002, Church officials in the Diocese of Boise found child pornography on the priest’s computer. Boise Bishop Michael Driscoll, formerly a Diocese of Orange bishop, sent Nguyen to Orange County. Instead of immediately defrocking Nguyen, Church officials placed him in an administrative position. Brown wouldn’t suspend him until after The Orange County Register broke the story.
Cesar Salazar: His case is similar to Nguyen’s. However, Brown allowed Salazar to continue giving Mass at St. Joseph’s in Santa Ana even after a worker discovered child pornography on Salazar’s computer. He didn’t get suspended until Brown bowed to public pressure.
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Daniel Murray: As mentioned above, the Orange diocese secretly settled a sex-abuse lawsuit in 2004 against Murray yet didn’t remove him from the priesthood, instead placing him on administrative leave.
The inactive list: From 1995 until 2001, the Orange diocese kept Eleuterio Ramos, Siegfried Widera and Michael Harris on its list of priests under “inactive leave,” those clergymen who weren’t officiating over Mass but were nevertheless in good clerical standing with the diocese. Ramos and Widera just happened to be the most notorious pedophile priests in Orange County history, each admitting to Church officials that they raped dozens of boys, while Harris was forced to resign as principal of Santa Margarita High School in the mid-1990s after the Church received a couple of sex-abuse allegations and a psychologist classified him as an ephebophile, someone attracted to teenage boys. Ramos, Widera and Harris were removed from the inactive list only after civil lawsuits were filed against them.
It’s not as if the diocese hadn’t previously removed pedophile priests from the inactive list; in 1996, it nixed the name of Andrew Christian Andersen from the list after he violated parole in New Mexico by trying to rape a teenage boy in that state. The parole happened after Andersen pleaded guilty in 1986 to molesting four boys at St. Bonaventure in Huntington Beach.