A Bishop’s Bold Move

Times Staff Writers

One is the shy, mild-mannered Roman Catholic bishop of Orange. The other is a prince of the church, the cardinal archbishop of Los Angeles, who has been unhesitant in using the power of his office to both bless and cajole.

But the record $100-million settlement reached last week by Bishop of Orange Tod D. Brown with 87 sexual abuse victims brought the prelate out of the shadow of his former seminary classmate, Cardinal Roger M. Mahony.

Brown is now the bishop in the national spotlight. His decision to approve the massive payout, the way he was embraced by sobbing victims the night of the settlement and his decision not to fight the release of internal church documents have highlighted the two men’s differences in method and tactics.


“We have two styles: One is a man of action, the other is a man of words,” said attorney Jeffrey Anderson of St. Paul, Minn., who represents hundreds of victims in California and elsewhere.

While Mahony has often expressed his desire to settle all 544 abuse cases in his archdiocese, Brown became the first bishop in California to resolve all the cases in his diocese.

Those familiar with the behind-the-scenes negotiations in both dioceses said Brown has been relatively transparent and cooperative, while Mahony has employed hardball legal strategies.

Brown has cooperated with prosecutors and lawyers for victims by turning over church files on priests. In contrast, Mahony has thrown up stiff resistance to divulging documents that could show how the church handled priests who had been accused of sexual abuse. Even now, Mahony’s attorneys are not ruling out the possibility of challenging a California law that gave victims the right to sue the church no matter how long ago the abuse occurred.

“I think the whole goal is to try to have these matters behind us,” said Illinois appellate court Justice Anne M. Burke, former chairwoman of a sexual abuse review board appointed by the U.S. bishops. “It appears [Brown] pulled out all the stops to try to get things done.... It’s a model for the rest of California as opposed to being adversarial.”

The varying perceptions of the two men took root in 2002 at the beginning of a scandal that has shaken the Catholic Church and deepened since then. The sight of victims weeping in Brown’s arms and thanking him after the Orange County settlement was reached Thursday cemented that image.


The bishops’ different tacks have strained a once-close relationship that began at St. John’s Seminary in Camarillo in the early 1960s.

They both started in ministry in the former diocese of Monterey-Fresno. Brown vacationed annually with Mahony at the cardinal’s cabin near Yosemite. Observers say Brown would have never been appointed the bishop of Orange, head of the church’s 10th-largest diocese, without Mahony’s approval.

With a roundish face and glasses, Brown, 68, who became bishop in 1998, could pass for an unassuming businessman were it not for his Roman collar. Known in his former diocese of Boise, Idaho, as a firm administrator, he likes to delegate work and prefers to meet people individually or in small groups.

He often appears uneasy in public, as when he nervously answered questions on “Nightline” last February. At public events, he usually reads from prepared statements and rarely strays from them.

But last January, the San Francisco native drew wide media attention when he nailed a document to the doors of Holy Family Cathedral in Orange proclaiming his diocese’s commitment to help heal those who had been sexually abused.

Mahony, also 68, became archbishop of Los Angeles in 1985. He is as lean as a desert ascetic and magisterial in his bearing. He is rarely photographed in groups when he is not modestly clasping his hands in front of himself.


He has a reputation as “media savvy,” and Pope John Paul II has referred to him as “Hollywood.” Mahony frequently goes to Rome to confer at the Vatican and is an avid user of the Internet to stay in touch.

Mahony, too, has reached out to victims. During a meeting of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, Mahony and a sexual abuse victim sat praying in facing chairs in a quiet corner.

When they had to dismiss priests accused of sexual abuse, the prelates took different approaches.

Mahony dismissed several priests in 2002 with no public notice, and the archdiocese refused for a time to provide the names or even the number of clerics involved.

About the same time, Brown fired a popular priest for molesting a boy more than three decades ago. He took advice from a crisis public relations specialist and allowed the priest, Michael Pecharich, to say goodbye to many of his 16,000 parishioners at weekend services. He set up discussion sessions after Mass for shocked congregants and sent press releases to the media.

A year later, Brown gave authorities a letter written by an Orange priest to Pope John Paul II asking to be released from the priesthood. In it, Father John Lenihan admitted to two affairs with teenagers.


With that piece of information, authorities arrested Lenihan.

“They have given us all of these documents we have requested, with the exception of documents that were legitimately privileged,” Orange County Dist. Atty. Tony Rackauckas said at the time.

But others say Mahony has shown leadership among the U.S. bishops in their handling of the abuse crisis.

Kathleen L. McChesney, executive director of the U.S. Catholic bishops’ Office for Child and Youth Protection, has credited Mahony for leading the drive last year for a nationwide study of sexual abuse in the church.

“Cardinal Mahony stood on the floor of the conference and put his support behind the study. That was very significant leadership action for the conference. Had he not done that, it would have taken much longer to get the study going, if at all,” McChesney said.

Delays in reaching a settlement in Los Angeles cannot be solely blamed on Mahony’s legal tactics. Father Thomas Reese, editor of the Jesuit magazine America, said that a refusal by insurance companies to pay claims the church believes they should has contributed to the delays. “You have to remember it wasn’t just the bishop in the room. It was the insurance companies too,” Reese said from his New York office.

Tod Tamberg, a spokesman for the Los Angeles Archdiocese, also noted that the Orange Diocese was formed just 28 years ago. The Los Angeles Archdiocese’s cases go back to as early as 1931, at a time when the archdiocese included San Diego, Orange and San Bernardino counties, which now are in separate dioceses.


Brown hasn’t always been seen as a patron of abuse victims.

Two members of the Sexual Misconduct Oversight and Review Board, created by the bishop to review sex abuse accusations against priests and others, resigned last year in protest.

One former member accused the church of failing to live up to its zero-tolerance policy for removing accused child molesters from their position of trust with children. The other former member complained that the board was “a public relations sham preoccupied with protecting the good names of priests.”

His decision this year to spend money on public relations also angered victims, as did his push for a new cathedral that included a $17-million land purchase in Santa Ana last year.

But most Orange County sexual abuse victims -- some reluctantly and some with gratitude -- said the settlement and Brown’s vow to write each of them a letter apologizing and seeking forgiveness wipe away much of their frustration and bitterness toward him.

“Bishop Brown is saying it’s time to move forward and let the victims start healing,” said Steven Sanchez, Los Angeles director of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, a national victims’ advocacy group.