Many Want Disclosures in O.C. Diocese Emulated

Times Staff Writers

As the faithful try to absorb painful revelations from newly released church documents about Orange County priests who sexually abused children, some national Roman Catholic leaders are renewing pleas that all U.S. bishops, including Cardinal Roger M. Mahony of Los Angeles, make public the files of other priests accused in the national scandal.

"What really concerns me is, instead of really disclosing what has taken place and having the church be transparent ... here is this continuing fight to protect against disclosure, and in the end it hurts the church that much more," said Leon Panetta, who was White House chief of staff under President Bill Clinton and later served on the U.S. bishops' national review board that investigated sexual abuse by clergy.

"There wasn't just one Cardinal [Bernard] Law in this country," added Panetta, referring to the Boston prelate who resigned in 2002 after documents showed that he had protected serial molesters. "There were others doing the same thing -- shifting around people and ignoring the threat they posed."

Justice Anne M. Burke of the Illinois Appellate Court, who served on the same bishops' review board, also called for the release of such files nationwide. "I urge them not to fight this anymore," she said. "Release the documents, say you're sorry, and move forward so this will never happen again."

More than 10,000 documents about Orange County cases were made public Tuesday as part of a $100-million settlement reached in December with 90 alleged victims. The files from accused priests show that top diocesan officials in Orange County kept known molesters in churches with no warning to parishioners, ignored allegations of sexual abuse and failed to report the criminal acts to police.

So far, Bishop of Orange Tod D. Brown is the only California prelate to resolve all of his diocese's sexual abuse claims and make public some of his priests' personnel files without a court order.

"He is to be commended for that," said Anne Barrett Doyle, co-operator of BishopAccountability.org, an archive of clergy sexual abuse documents compiled by three Boston-area residents. She added that Brown's actions should be a precedent for Mahony and other bishops.

For two years, Mahony has fought in court the release of documents subpoenaed by a Los Angeles County grand jury and sought by plaintiffs' attorneys working on the 544 sexual abuse claims filed against the Los Angeles Archdiocese in 2003. Mahony contends that such a blanket release would violate confidentiality between a bishop and priests.

"The archdiocese agrees that full disclosure of these important files would serve as an easy end to this ongoing controversy," said J. Michael Hennigan, chief attorney for the archdiocese.

But Hennigan added that the archdiocese was facing the challenge of balancing the "legitimate needs of disclosure with the need for sensitive communication inside the church."

In Orange County, some angry Catholics and molestation victims said Wednesday that those responsible for protecting predator priests should be removed from ministry.

"The diocese says it's now a humbler and holier diocese," said Joelle Casteix, who received a $1.6-million settlement from the diocese in December. "Anyone who was complicit or conspired in this process of protecting pedophiles should be removed from ministry. If they're not, it's a slap in the face to victims."

Casteix said she and others would hand out in Orange County parishes copies of some of the newly released documents involving two clerics: Michael P. Driscoll, now bishop of Boise, Idaho, who reviewed sexual abuse cases in Orange County under previous bishops from 1976 to 1999; and John Urell, now pastor of St. Norbert Church in Orange, another former top diocesan official who worked closely with Driscoll on the misconduct cases but had a lesser role.

The documents reveal that Driscoll accepted into an Orange County parish an out-of-state priest who he had been told was a repeat pedophile, one who went on to be accused of molesting nine Orange County boys. Driscoll also shipped another serial pedophile to the Diocese of Tijuana.

In Boise, Driscoll declined an interview request through his spokeswoman, Colette Cowman.

"He just feels no matter what he says or does, there will still be people who don't feel good about him," Cowman said. "He's made his statement. It was a heartfelt statement and he's decided he will stand on his statement."

This month, Driscoll posted on his diocesan website an apology in anticipation of the documents' release.

"I think he learned from his experience in the Diocese of Orange.... This man has moved forward. He's acknowledged his mistakes in the system he was in then," she added.

Urell declined to comment.

The disclosures in Orange also brought apologies Wednesday from two prelates, Bishop George Niederauer of Salt Lake City and Auxiliary Bishop Jaime Soto of Orange, for letters they wrote in 1986 to an Orange County judge.

They both had asked that Father Andrew Christian Andersen be spared prison time and questioned the allegations that led to the priest's conviction on 26 counts of felony child sexual abuse. Andersen, who served no prison time for those crimes, was arrested four years later on suspicion of sodomizing a 14-year-old boy and was sentenced to six years in prison for violating probation.

"I do regret writing that letter," Soto said in an interview Wednesday. "I wrote it as a friend. I didn't know the details of the case."

Niederauer said: "Perhaps I should have been better informed of the content of the trial. He was someone I had known for several years. I wish now that it had gone otherwise."

At Holy Family Cathedral in Orange, some parishioners expressed support for the diocese and lauded Brown's decision to release the personnel files.

"I think it's a wonderful thing," said Bill Weeks, 40, en route to noon Mass. "It shows that my diocese has nothing to hide.... [Brown] will do whatever needs to be done for there to be healing."

The Orange resident withheld judgment about diocesan officials who protected abusive priests. "I don't judge," he said, "because that's only left to one authority, and that's God."

Another parishioner said Tuesday's revelations neither surprised her nor diminished her support of the church.

"We always have faith that the church is guided by the Holy Spirit," said Alicia McLaughlin, 70, of Tustin. "We shall overcome. We're all together in this."

Justice Burke said she hoped Pope Benedict XVI would forcefully address the problem of abusive clergy and the cover-ups.

She and others had met with then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger and his staff in January 2004 for more than two hours in what she described as a candid discussion about the crisis.

"I am sure he'll do all he can to make sure the church will be safe from priest predators and errant bishops who continue to transfer them," Burke said. "Very few of our cardinals and bishops would even talk to us. Rome met us with more open arms."

The most revealing Orange County files centered on five priests, including three notorious predators: Siegfried Widera, Eleuterio "Al" Ramos and Andersen. Files on two other priests, Franklin Buckman and Michael Pecharich, showed that diocesan officials were slow to respond to complaints.

Widera and Ramos are dead. Buckman, who retired to Mesa, Ariz., in 2002, denied the allegations.

Pecharich was contacted at his west Long Beach home Wednesday, but declined to talk. Andersen could not be found.

Contributing to this report were Times staff writers Dave McKibben, Jean O. Pasco, Andrew Wang and Claudia Zequeira in Southern California, and Larry B. Stammer in Boise.

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World
60°