Christ Our Non-Saver

You'd think Orange Bishop Tod D. Brown would order his hierarchy to begin scrimping and saving—a little less holy wine, the elimination of Brown's private chef, the sale of his million-dollar Tustin residence. After all, negotiations between the Church and lawyers for more than 100 alleged Orange County priest-molestation victims acrimoniously broke off on July 22, meaning the plaintiffs can now begin suing the Church individually. The ensuing trials could take years and push the Orange diocese—which reported assets of $126 million in 2003—toward the brink of bankruptcy.

It sure seemed as if Brown was planning for the worst financially back in May, when he approved the elimination of 11 lay workers and diocesan programs and justified his actions to the Los Angeles Times by stressing, “The major concern is the settlement question. That has to be behind us before we can refocus on another project.”

But, apparently, happy days are here again! Even with the looming financial crisis, Brown is moving forward with plans to build a multimillion-dollar cathedral on a Santa Ana soybean farm. The Santa Ana City Council on July 19 unanimously approved a development agreement between the city and the Orange diocese that clears the way for construction on a 16-acre lot located at 2001 W. Macarthur Blvd.

A representative from the diocese's construction board presented council members with Brown's vision for the vacant field: a 2,650-seat cathedral (to be named Christ Our Savior Cathedral), a state-of-the-art parish hall, apartments for clergy both active and retired, and parochial offices that will allow the diocese to relocate its operations there from its current headquarters high in the Orange hills.

Brown's plans go further than mere edifices, however—he also plans to ring the cathedral with greenery that would rival the Garden of Eden: eight species of trees, 14 different flowers (including three types of lilies and two roses) and five varieties of vines. And the most curious inclusion is a 45,000-square-foot catacomb, where, according to a Santa Ana planning-department staff report, the diocese will offer “entombed facilities . . . for those parishioners from the Diocese who also choose to be buried in the Cathedral.”

The timing of the developer's agreement between the city and the diocese reveals again how furiously Brown flip-flops between privately pushing for the new cathedral while publicly appearing serious about handling his diocese's pedophilia problem. Church officials originally announced plans to develop the Macarthur Boulevard property in 2001 by embarking on a $100 million capital campaign. But Brown called off the alms demands in 2002 due to the then-blossoming sex-abuse scandal. In a July 2 letter that year to parishioners, Brown expressed, “We would all agree that the current Church [sex-abuse] crisis is having a profound effect on our priests and parishioners and this time would be better used to allow for healing to take place.”

The capital campaign has remained in limbo since. But last December, the diocese established two nonprofit corporations to assure donors that money contributed to Christ Our Savior would not be tapped for any sex-abuse settlements. And tractors were already rumbling toward Macarthur in anticipation of the coming cathedral construction even as Brown warned parishioners of the coming fiscal calamity in a June 13 open letter he ordered priests to read in place of the traditional homily during Mass. In it, Brown asked everyone to “pull together, support one another, and face honestly our failures and the crimes and sins of some of our members.”

The diocese has never indicated how much it expects to spend on the proposed development, although Brown has vowed to keep costs below the $200 million spent to complete Los Angeles' Our Lady of the Angels Cathedral, which opened in 2002. But a real-estate lawyer who requested anonymity gave a conservative estimate for the proposed cathedral of “at least $50 million” based solely on the square footage involved. The lawyer added that he wouldn't be surprised if costs exceed $100 million.

Even if the price tag for Christ Our Savior is just $50 million, that amount would easily exceed the $40 million that Brown offered to sex-abuse victims as a settlement last fall, an amount the plaintiffs rejected as too little and that will easily be superseded with multiple concurrent trials. Add both bills together, and county Catholics should expect to stuff a lot of collection envelopes for the next couple of decades.



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