Redemption Has Its Place, but Some Wrongs Are Not So Easily Righted
Msgr. John Urell, a Former Influential Orange County Roman Catholic Diocesan Official Linked to the Coverups during the 1980s and 1990s Surrounding Sexually Predatory Priests, Shouldn't Be Forgiven Fo

By Dana Parsons
Los Angeles Times [California]
October 19, 2006,0,4365649.column?coll=la-home-local

The plan today was to bat around the question of public redemption.

Who's entitled to it, and who isn't?

I even had my poster boy picked out: Msgr. John Urell, a former influential Orange County Roman Catholic diocesan official inextricably linked to the cover-ups during the 1980s and 1990s surrounding sexually predatory priests. For the last couple of years, Urell has been operating under the radar screen as a member of the Orange County Human Relations Commission, in addition to his day job as pastor at St. Norbert's Catholic Church in Orange.

This week, the radar picked him up again. When Urell's two-year commission appointment came up for renewal, opponents came forward and vehemently spoke against him.

And there was our issue: Did Urell's indisputable role in the conspiracy of silence disqualify him from serving on a public board? Or should he have been allowed to serve and make a public contribution as some sort of payback for his earlier bad judgments?

I was prepared to deliver my in-print verdict on Urell today, but he made it a moot point Wednesday with a phone call to county Supervisor Bill Campbell. "He said he had enjoyed his service, but it was now becoming a distraction to the good work of the commission," Campbell said of Urell's request to withdraw his appointment.

If that really was Urell's reason, he's still covering up. The issue isn't distraction; it's whether his failure to step forward years ago and tell the truth renders him unacceptable to serve the public.

I had come to the conclusion it had. Truth is, I wanted to go the other way, to argue for Urell's continuing presence on the commission. Longtime readers will know I'm big on redemption and big on public service.

In the end, however, I just couldn't get there. But along the interview trail the last couple of days, I got reintroduced to the trauma and pathos of the whole sordid mess of diocesan officials not doing their duty to their parishioners.

Let's start with Urell, who was never accused of any improper physical contact with anyone. Even as arch a foe as John Manly, an attorney who's represented about 35 alleged Orange County abuse victims, says Urell was a man of immense charm and seemingly genuine caring.

In a sense, Manly says, there is a tragic arc to Urell's career.

On paper, Urell's diocesan record appeared to put him on track for consideration as a future bishop. But it was that very climb through the upper ranks of the diocese, starting in 1983 when he was secretary to the bishop, that brought Urell into contact with the seamier side of life.

One can only wonder, as perhaps Urell has, how things would have been different had he stepped forward and told what he undoubtedly knew. But not until May 2005 did Orange County diocesan officials release more than 10,000 pages of documents detailing the church's failure to weed out abusive priests.

"If it was one mistake, I could understand it," Manly says about Urell's silence. "But we're talking about 20 years of concealment and cover-up of the worst crimes imaginable. That's just never going to be OK."

Official papers connect Urell most closely to the cases of two priests, Manly says, but is quick to note that Urell's lofty status in the diocesan hierarchy makes it impossible to believe he wasn't aware of other serious abusers.

"Between 1987 and 2001 or 2002," Manly says, "he basically was the person who got the phone call if there was any sexual abuse allegation."

By the time I talked to Campbell on Wednesday, Urell had already withdrawn his name, so we didn't dwell on Manly's arguments. Campbell noted that the diocese's 2005 disclosure was released after he appointed Urell and that he in recent days has read a synopsis of news stories Urell's opponents gave him.

However, he didn't renounce Urell, who is his parish priest and who stood on the podium with Campbell when he was sworn into office. Referring to the aftermath of the diocese's revealing of its sorry history with abuse allegations, Campbell says, "I saw the human side of his reaction. He literally apologized to everyone at each Mass on a Sunday. I was there when he did it. I could see he was a grieving individual."

Unfortunately, the church's silence here and in other dioceses around America have left many grieving people. The anger still is palpable, and it operates on a deep, emotionally wrenching level still not fully grasped by many of the church's supporters.

It's a sad legacy and, if only for that reason, Urell shouldn't serve on the commission.

Of course, it's far from the only reason. Much more damning is that Urell's silence, and that of others, perpetuated a reign of terror on youngsters.

So, I knew I was preaching to the choir when I asked Manly about redemption. Why not let Urell serve on a board such as the Human Relations Commission?

I just can't argue with Manly, who says redemption can be sought elsewhere.

"That's between him and God," Manly says. "I'm not his judge. I don't pretend to be. But I do know this: Anybody who's done what he's done doesn't belong in any kind of public office, period."

Dana Parsons' column appears Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays. He can be reached at (714) 966-7821 or at


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