An Act of Contrition
Bishop of Orange Diocese Admits Church Made Mistakes in Sex-Abuse Scandal

By Jim Hinch
The Orange County Register [Orange County CA]
Downloaded June 18, 2003

For years, victims of sexual abuse at the hands of priests and their lawyers maintained that taking on the Catholic Church was like staring at the high walls of a powerful, exclusive club. Priests and their superiors closed ranks, investigated themselves and swept problems - and victims - under the rug, survivors said.

On Tuesday, Diocese of Orange Bishop Tod Brown said there is some truth to such accusations.

"I think there was a tendency to do that kind of thing, to deal with this outside the public light, deal with it privately," Brown said as he prepared to leave for a national bishops' meeting to discuss a sex-abuse crisis that has, in his words, dealt "a damaging blow to church credibility."

"You have to realize that (priests and those who investigated sex-abuse allegations) were all at school together, they had social relationships, there might have been friendship involved here," Brown said.

"Now we have the services of a couple of private investigators we use. We started that last year. ... We can't shield people who have done something wrong."

Across Southern California, up to 400 sex-abuse lawsuits are filed or ready to be filed against dioceses in six counties. In Orange County, lawyers representing dozens of victims against at least 11 priests have been preparing DVDs of their clients' stories and sprawling timelines of alleged abusers and the superiors who purportedly turned a blind eye.

Brown and other church officials said the Orange County District Attorney's Office recently asked them to turn over personnel records of former Orange County priest Eleutario Ramos, accused of molesting boys in the 1970s and 1980s.

Lessons learned

Looking back, Brown acknowledged that church officials' eagerness to deal with sex-abuse problems on their own exposed them to the current storm of litigation.

Brown spoke of the investigation into Michael Harris, the beloved principal of Mater Dei and Santa Margarita Catholic high schools who was accused of masturbating in front of and having sex with at least four boys at the schools.

When allegations surfaced in 1993, then-bishop Norm McFarland assigned his chancellor, Msgr. John Urell, to investigate. Urell, a friend of Harris' who periodically went out to dinner with him, testified in a sworn court deposition in 2001 that his investigation consisted primarily of asking Harris to recommend people who could corroborate the allegations.

In March 1994, Harris confessed to Urell that he had once forced a 21-year-old man to have sex with him in his diocese-owned house, according to the deposition. A few months later, after psychologists determined that Harris was a pedophile who should be kept away from teenage boys, he was stripped of priestly duties.

Shortly before Harris left the diocese in June 1994, Urell went to a party in his honor with other priests and Harris supporters at the home of Father Michael Pecharich, who last year was forced to resign from his own parish for an admitted sexual relationship with a teenage boy.

"I guess some of the guys wanted to get together and say: 'It's over. You're leaving,' " Urell said in the deposition. "I can say now I believe it was inappropriate to go."

Brown said: "The Diocese of Orange has made mistakes. ... A lot of it has to do with not realizing what they were dealing with. There was an effort sometimes to protect. ... You can't have friends investigating friends."

Improvements made

Brown and other church officials cited a battery of measures they have taken to ensure such mistakes aren't made again, from ejecting problem priests to fingerprinting diocese employees to quickly turning over relevant files to prosecutors.

Brown said such measures are necessary to restore church credibility, which suffered a new blow when former Oklahoma Gov. Frank Keating recently resigned from a national, bishop-appointed board to investigate priest abuse. Keating said some bishops, especially in California, stonewalled inquiries. In turn, bishops pressured Keating to resign.

Brown said he looks forward to the national board's September audit of his diocese's response to the abuse crisis. "I have no apprehension about it," he said.

Victims not impressed

Victims' lawyers said all Southern California dioceses have stubbornly resisted their attempts to get priests' personnel files. As the lawyers and some of their clients contemplated the one-year anniversary of national bishop-approved rules to prevent further abuse, they said most church gestures have been merely symbolic.

"They didn't address the critical issues of culpability of bishops and cardinals who allowed this to happen," said Lee Bashforth, who recently helped start an Orange County chapter of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, or SNAP. "They made the choice to hide this and cause more children to be abused because they cared more about scandal than the youngest of their flock."

Victims' lawyer John Manley said his lawsuits show a Catholic hierarchy indifferent to victims for decades. He pointed to comments former Diocese of Orange Bishop Norm McFarland made in a deposition in the lawsuit against Harris.

"Oh, a 15-year-old girl, I can understand the temptation of that more," McFarland said when asked why in the mid-1990s he transferred a priest, John Lenihan, who admitted a sexual relationship with a 15-year-old girl. "She may be very, very precocious or adult-looking and everything else, and there would be the temptation there."

Brown, who was appointed bishop of the Orange diocese in 1998, said the church has learned from its mistakes. "I'm just committed to try to implement (new sex-abuse regulations) and deal with this very serious wound in the life of our church," he said. "I want to bring about healing."


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