Bishop Brown Confuses Penance and Public Relations

By Steven Greenhut
The Orange County Register [California]
January 25, 2004

In normal times, one would expect a Roman Catholic bishop, when looking to atone for grievous sins leaders of his church had committed, to turn for advice to the teachings of his own church, rather than to a pricey public relations firm. These, apparently, are not normal times.

Bishop of Orange Tod Brown is spending $90,000 over four months in diocese funds to hire a PR agency to advise the diocese on how to handle an ongoing sexual abuse crisis that is threatening the diocese's fund-raising and cathedral-building efforts.

The result, announced at a press conference at a Garden Grove hotel on Jan. 15, is called "The Covenant With the Faithful." It features seven "theses," or promises, to local Catholics. In a follow-up act last Sunday, Bishop Brown, surrounded by supporters, nailed those theses to the front door at Holy Family Cathedral in Orange.

Call him Martin Luther Brown.

Apparently, the PR firm needs to brush up on Catholic theology. Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses to the Wittenberg door as a form of protest, having failed in his efforts to get the Catholic Church's leadership to listen to his criticisms. But Bishop Brown is the top man in the Diocese of Orange. He need only do the right thing - he doesn't need to nail anything to the door to get anyone's attention.

In this dumbed-down world, it's the pictures that matter. The bishop, whose new covenant is filled with therapeutic language more suited to sociology than Christian theology, has proved once again that it's all about public relations. By the way, as one local Catholic jokingly asked me, "Which public relations firm did Jesus use?"

The bishop even wore the purple robes of the penitent when he pulled his publicity stunt in front of his own cathedral. But according to the Catholic Encyclopedia, "The principal act in the exercise of this virtue [of penance] is the detestation of sin, not of sin in general nor of that which others commit, but of one's own sin ... sorrow does not suffice for penance."

During his press conference, the bishop did not apologize for his own specific failures in dealing with the mess. He talked in vague generalities, admitting that members of his church abused children and that church leaders covered up the abuse and moved perpetrators from diocese to diocese. But he expressed only general sorrow.

Remember, also, that one cannot be truly penitent if one is still involved in the sins for which one is repenting. The diocese's Thesis No. 2 said that it will follow "our own diocesan policies for the prevention of the abuse of children and young people." But the bishop has recently violated his own zero-tolerance policies, put into place by a judge as part of a $5.2 million legal settlement.

Until he was embarrassed by media coverage in July, the bishop did not remove from active ministry two priests credibly accused of downloading child pornography on their computers and a choir director who was once convicted of lewd conduct with a teen.

Ironically, just weeks before the news came out about his breaking of his own policy, the bishop responded on the diocese Web sites to previous criticisms in this column about his inaction. In that message, the bishop claims to have gone through church records, having "immediately removed from ministry any person who has ever been credibly accused of or admitted to sexual misconduct."

Then the reports hit about the two priests and choir director, undermining the claims the bishop made (and which remain on the diocese Web site). Rather than apologize, the bishop engaged in acts of hair-splitting that are unseemly for a man of his position.

First, the bishop denied that child porn is included in the zero-tolerance policy. Later, he explained in a letter to the Register that he would remove from ministry anyone "found guilty of this crime." He said the accused priests "have not been arrested or indicted by civil authorities." These explanations are bizarre. Child porn is mentioned on page one of the diocese policy, and the policy refers to "reasonable suspicion," not prosecution by the authorities, as the standard for removal.

What's that saying? The first thing to do when you find yourself in a hole is stop digging.

This isn't the only example of a disconnect between the bishop's words and the diocese's ongoing actions. Thesis No. 5 says, "We will be open, honest and forthright in our public statements to the media, and consistent and transparent in our communications with the Catholics of our diocese."

Yet the week before the news conference, the diocese publicized the data it provided as part of the John Jay Study, a national church-sponsored survey of abuse. In its filing, the Orange County diocese reported that "16 priests were accused by 47 people," and that represents only "2.8 percent of the 589 clergy who have ministered in the diocese since its founding in 1976."

Even a quick perusal of news reports suggests a vast undercounting of sex-abusers and victims by the Diocese of Orange. Attorney John Manly, who represents abuse victims, sent me a list of 26 priests, four members of religious orders and eight lay people credibly accused of having sexually abused children in the diocese, plus three priests with credible accusations involving an adult. That's 41 abusers, and most of the abusers had multiple victims. One priest admits to having molested 25 boys.

I had great difficulty getting an explanation of the disparity from the diocese media staff. Finally, they told me their numbers include only priests, and only those victims and victimizers known through 2002. The diocese did not release the names of the priests, so I can't double-check them against the names on the list that I have. But, as Manly points out, "The diocese is acting like 16 is the total number. They know it darn well isn't."

Sure enough, the diocese uses that low number for maximum PR impact in its latest issue of the Orange County Catholic newspaper.

Speaking of transparency with the media, I was not invited to the diocese's Jan. 15 press conference, nor was the OC Weekly reporter I talked to there. We both found out about it from other sources. The diocese tried to keep a victims' representative out of the news conference. The bishop refused to take questions from reporters, and was hustled to a private room where a select group of pre-approved media could interview him.

I'm still basking in that newfound spirit of openness.

If the bishop had wanted to do this right, he could have. He could have apologized for the way he turned the diocese abuse board, meant to provide an impartial review of abuse allegations, into what one former member calls a "PR sham." The only two abuse victims who were on the board have quit, arguing that the board was used to cover up rather than expose abuse.

Brown could have apologized for fighting to the state Supreme Court the release of documents in Ryan DiMaria's case regarding the Rev. Michael Harris, the Mater Dei principal accused of abusing students. He could have apologized for the way the diocese has treated victims like enemies, thus victimizing them a second time when they come forth with abuse allegations.

But to do that, the bishop would have to be serious about repentance, rather than just serious about protecting church bank accounts and his career.

There's still time, though it's a- wasting. Thesis No. 7 vows a rededication to "the disenfranchised and the poor." That's good. But acts of penance need to be specific and meaningful. Here's my suggestion: Bishop Brown should move out of his mansion-ette and into the rectory at Marywood. He should lay off the private chef, sell the luxurious digs and give the money to the overburdened Catholic Worker homeless shelter in Santa Ana.

That would help the poor, help the bishop come to terms with his own actions and inactions, and give skeptics a reason to believe that he is serious about making amends.