Catholic Abuse Boards a 'PR Sham'
Senior Editorial Writer and Columnist for the Register

By Steven Greenhut
Orange County Register
June 22, 2003

When the U.S. Roman Catholic Church established its National Review Board last year as a truth squad to assure that the church was dealing with its child-rape scandal in an open and legal manner, I had my doubts. Would Americans think much of an Enron investigatory panel set up by the disgraced company with members handpicked by Enron executives?

Probably not. Why, then, should they embrace a self-policing panel set up by the Roman Catholic Church, given its recent history?

Enron was a large, well-respected company that had violated the trust of its investors and the public, and whose executives allegedly committed crimes and covered them up. The church is a large organization, whose employees violated the most sacred trust of parishioners, and whose executives led a major cover-up.

Leaders at the highest levels of the American hierarchy - Archbishops Roger Mahony of Los Angeles, Bernard Law of Boston and others - had known about priests who allegedly molested children and teen-agers, yet moved those priests to other parishes where they could continue their predatory ways. The goal remains the protection of careers, not the protection of parishioners.

I didn't think they could police themselves, and recent events prove that I wasn't just being negative.

So, now, a year after the board was established nationally, and a version of the board was established in the Diocese of Orange, the public learns the truth: Both were, in the words of a local woman who resigned from the Orange abuse panel in protest, a "public relations ploy." The handpicked, devoutly Catholic leader of the national board, former Oklahoma Gov. Frank Keating, was far more direct.

He likened church leaders to La Cosa Nostra - the Mafia organization known for its "protect the family at all costs" means of avoiding scrutiny of wrongdoing. He said Archbishop Mahony listened to his lawyers rather than his heart. Los Angeles District Attorney Steve Cooley defended Keating, arguing that the L.A. archdiocese is still fighting tooth-and-nail the release of sought-after documents.

But one doesn't criticize cardinals and bishops. Mahony and others were incensed that Keating would use such direct language. No church leaders in all the news accounts I've seen expressed concern about the substance of Keating's words. They were outraged "the code of silence" was broken.

As if to prove Keating's point, the bishops and archbishops forced Keating to resign, although Keating stuck by his guns to the end, arguing in his resignation letter, "I make no apology. To resist grand jury subpoenas, to suppress the names of offending clerics, to deny, to obfuscate, to explain away - that is the model of a criminal organization, not my church."

Suppress, deny, obfuscate. Is that what Jesus would do?

Well, at least the public knows. Anything that comes out of the National Review Board will be a sham, an attempt to cover up rather than to expose the church's misdeeds. If these supposed representatives of Christ on Earth cannot even stand a little

forthright talk from one of their own appointed overseers, then there is no way the board will accomplish anything much.

Same goes for the Diocese of Orange, even though Bishop Tod Brown, a staunch supporter of Mahony's despicable handling of the abuse crisis, tries to portray himself as a model of contrition and openness.

Local lawyers complain that the Orange diocese also resists turning over needed documents. And the operations of Brown's review board, formerly known as the Sensitive Issues Committee, should open the eyes of anyone still foolish enough to believe that a diocese that fought all the way to the state Supreme Court to protect an accused molester has really embraced the open policy that has been promised.

If Brown spent less time having PR-inspired acts of "contrition" and more time releasing documents and cooperating with victims, we might actually be getting somewhere.

Joelle Casteix, 32, was the perfect choice by the Diocese of Orange to serve on its abuse committee. An articulate PR professional who lives in Newport Beach, she approached the diocese in earnestness looking for a way to help fix the situation that led to her own molestation 17 years ago.

She was 15 years old when her parents sent her to Mater Dei High School. Her mother was an alcoholic and her family life was so troubled that she attempted suicide. She says the school administration knew that she was vulnerable, and passed that information on to faculty members so that they presumably would treat her with extra sensitivity.

One faculty member, she said, zeroed in on that vulnerability, speaking to her about alcoholism and pretending to offer a helping hand. One day he invited her to his house to join with other students who were helping him move, but Casteix said she was the only other person there. He raped her, she said, and sexual abuse continued for two years.

She was scared and vulnerable, and was threatened not to tell anyone. The diocese told me it removed the alleged abuser from the school years later after it became aware of the allegations, but Casteix says he now is a faculty member at a college elsewhere.

Casteix has gotten on with her life, but was looking for a way to protect other kids from the suffering she endured. After she finished college, she wrote a letter to Mater Dei after the church's 2001 multimillion-dollar settlement with Ryan DiMaria, who said he was abused by Father Michael Harris, the Mater Dei principal when Casteix attended school there. She didn't hear from the school, but an attorney and spokeswoman for the diocese contacted her. Eventually, the diocese asked Casteix to serve on the abuse panel. Her understanding was clear: The panel would be an independent body that would review policies to prevent abuse and to make sure they were enforced. The panel would review specific cases and monitor how the diocese was dealing with them.

What happened?

"None of that stuff," said Casteix. The panel met once a month. "The discussions centered around documents. The big fear from members of the board was that priests' personal, private lives would end up on the front page of the newspaper. Board members believed most of the charges were false. ... They talked about how to keep files out of the hands of the district attorney, the media and the trial lawyers."

The board, comprised mostly of community members appointed by the diocese along with two priests and a representative of the diocese, was supposed to move forward with actions, but, she said, the diocese didn't do any follow up. No specific cases or allegations of abuse were brought before the panel in the six months in which she was a member.

The diocese asked review board member Barbara Phillips to contact me. She said that "no one on that board has any concerns in discharging its responsibilities." She emphasized that it is a new board, which is still "in the process of establishing protocol." The board started last summer, which makes one wonder what they're waiting for.

But Casteix found no effort to create new policies, no timeline, no sense that this was a priority to the diocese. And, of course, the bishop isn't required to follow the board's advice. "I've spent my entire adult life in public relations, and I know a sham when I see one," Casteix added.

Fortunately, the California Legislature - over the bitter objections of California dioceses - temporarily extended the statute of limitations on abuse cases so that victims will have their day in court, given that so many church molesters have never even been punished.

Casteix is taking advantage of the opportunity, and is now filing a lawsuit against the diocese. "The only way the church will be accountable is when the courts force it to obey the law," she said.

I can't help but agree. I've never been a fan of the tort system, but without it we'd be stuck waiting for the church to police its own - something that recent events show will happen only when hell freezes over.


Any original material on these pages is copyright © 2004. Reproduce freely with attribution.