Of all the insults leveled at Orange County's Catholic faithful by their diocesan leaders this year—a shortlist includes the purchase of a $1.1 million gated-community estate for Bishop Tod D. Brown, His Excellency's refusal to settle priestly molestation cases, and Brown's insistence on building a $100 million cathedral despite widespread parishoner opposition—none has been more odious than the hiring of the Softness Group. During a Jan. 15 press conference, Brown announced the rewarding of a $90,000 contract to the New York-based PR firm so they could spin the diocese's sex-abuse scandal. The flacks immediately went to work. Three days later, Brown made like Martin Luther and nailed onto the front door of Orange's Holy Family Cathedral his “Covenant With the Faithful”—seven theses that vowed to be “consistent and transparent in our communications with the Catholics of our diocese.”
The diocese quieted critics at the time of the contract's announcement by maintaining that $90,000 purchased only four months' of work from Softness. But the Weeklyhas learned that, like nearly all of the things that tumble from Brown's mouth, the four-month claim was bogus.
Sources tell the Weekly the Orange diocese terminated its contract with the Softness Firm not in April, as Brown pledged, but in September. Since May, the Orange diocese retained the Softness Firm at a cost of $30,000 per month. And that's not considering standard add-on expenses for PR firms such as airline tickets, hotel rooms, phone bills and meals, expenses that a local publicist said “could easily run from $10,000 to $15,000 per month” considering the high-profile client. Counting the Softness Firm's original four-month agreement and using the local publicist's self-admitted conservative estimate, Brown has spent at least $360,000 on pedo-spinning this year. To put that figure into perspective, the Diocese of Orange last year contributed $398,500 to its charitable arm, Catholic Charities of Orange County.
The strangest aspect of this fiasco, however, is the Softness Firm itself: it doesn't seem to exist. A call to the number listed on a September 2004 credit report for the firm is disconnected. It's not included in the O'Dwyer's 2004 Directory of Corporate Communications, the PR industry's bible. And a worker at O'Dwyer's New York-based offices said that they haven't listed the Softness Group for years.
Maria Schinderle, Orange diocese general counsel and Brown's point person for the sex-abuse scandal, refused to comment, bandying an interview request to diocesan spokesman Father Joe Fenton. In an e-mail, Fenton did not provide a contact for the Softness Group as requested. As for Brown's ditching of the firm hundreds of thousands of dollars later, Fenton would only reply, “The Softness Group was not fired. They completed their work.”
In 2002, Bishop Brown complained to the Los Angeles Times the American Catholic Church had become “too clerical” and vowed to grant more diocesan decisions to Orange County's 1.2 million Catholics.
“If we're going to be listening to our people clearly, we're going to listen to what they have to say, whether we want to hear it or not,” Brown told Times reporter William Lobdell. “So if they are concerned about celibacy [for example], we're going to have to listen to that.”
That promise, like most of Brown's promises, quickly disappeared. When a diocese-conducted survey revealed “many respondents urged that the requirement of celibacy be eliminated,” the September edition of the diocese's newspaper, Orange County Catholic, responded that the decision to allow optional celibacy for priests “[is] beyond the jurisdiction of a diocesan bishop.”
That hasn't quieted the local optional-celibacy movement, but what is surprising is the latest faction seeking the right for clergy to boink: Orange diocese priests.
A poll conducted over the summer by the Southern California chapter of the national Catholic reform organization Call to Action revealed that 68 percent of Orange diocesan priests questioned favored dialogue on the issue of celibacy. Of 164 questionnaires sent to Orange priests, 40 responded—a return rate of 24 percent that a Call to Action spokesperson says is “within the range of being representative of the diocese as a whole.”
Some questionnaires returned with comments (found at futurechurch.org/fpm/survey/orange.htm) and suggest a growing schism between Brown—who toes the Vatican's line on mandatory clerical chastity—and his clergy. “Should have been done a long time ago!” wrote one priest. Another replied, “I think that it is time that all baptized members of the Church are heard. The Holy Spirit is in all.”
In previous years, such dissension would provoke a diocese-wide crackdown from the bishop—former Bishop Norman McFarland was infamous for such harangues. But as Brown enters the holiday seasons with his regime crumbling, sex-abuse lawsuits not going anywhere and the faithful furious, priests wanting some lovin' is probably his least-important problem right now.