Diocese Breaks Zero Tolerance Vow

By Steven Greenhut
Orange County Register
July 20, 2003

An Orange County Roman Catholic priest has been accused of having child-pornographic images on his computer, yet the Diocese of Orange continues to let him serve as a priest, using legalistic excuses why child porn doesn't fall under the diocese's ''zero tolerance'' policy.

The diocese doesn't want you to know who the priest is, where he is serving or whether he is anywhere near children.

According to an e-mail to a concerned church member from Fr. Michael McKiernan, who handles personnel matters for the diocese, the zero-tolerance policy refers only to those priests who have actually ''engaged in'' molestation. So having illicit photographs of sex involving men and boys on one's computer doesn't count.

When the diocese learned of the computer images, it contacted the police. A diocese official said the police didn't pursue the matter further because the porn sites could simply have been pop-up ads. The diocese sent him to psychological evaluation. That, apparently, was the end of the story, as far as the diocese was concerned.

Does that make you -- and your children -- feel safer?

The diocese continues to present itself as a model for dealing with these issues. Yet the two abuse victims who served on the diocese's abuse review panel have resigned -- both in protest of the diocese's handling of the crisis. Following the second victim's recent resignation, the diocese no longer has any abuse victims on the review board.

In a resignation e-mail to the panel's chairman, the victim wrote: ''It is with a hurtful heart and sense of disillusionment that I confirm my resignation ... . As you are aware, I have expressed significant frustration and concern over the diocese's failure to take decisive and appropriate action with respect to certain cases reviewed by the board. I was asked to serve on this board as a voice for the victims, and with the exception of a few members of the board, I feel that voice is being ignored.''

This is further evidence that the diocese is more interested in PR than action.

After the first victim/board member to resign, Joelle Casteix, complained in this column that the diocese is using the self-policing panel as a means to cover up abuses, Bishop Tod Brown criticized her in a question-and-answer piece in the July Orange County Catholic, the diocesan newspaper.

She believes the bishop's unusual public criticism of her is an attempt to intimidate victims into silence.

The bishop questioned her veracity, and said in the interview: ''I have directed that the files be searched and thorough background checks be conducted to determine whether there ever was a credible accusation made against a priest, religious or lay person ministering in our diocese.''

But in the light of the diocese's inaction with regard to a priest accused of having child-pornography images on his computer, and the resignation of the second board member, it is the bishop's credibility -- not Casteix's -- that needs examination.

Frankly, I don't think the diocese gets it about the seriousness of the abuse scandal. In that same issue of the Orange County Catholic, the diocese features a photograph and favorable write-up about Archbishop Rembert Weakland, the Milwaukee archbishop who retired from his post in disgrace after news reports revealed that he paid $450,000 in church money to keep a man quiet about an apparent former sexual relationship. (Weakland also is known for his 1988 comments: ''Not all adolescent victims are so innocent. Some can be sexually very active and aggressive and often quite streetwise.'')

What message does that send?

Bishop Brown has assured Catholics in Orange County that the diocese is free of molester priests. The diocese emphasized its proactive stance last week, after it placed on administrative leave a priest accused of molesting an Anaheim teen July 12.

Yet troubling questions remain. A former diocese employee, Fernando Guido, provided me with his detailed correspondence with the diocese and the Orange County District Attorney's office about the priest accused of having child-sex images on his computer.

Guido said he began working at Marywood Pastoral Center in August 2000. In summer 2001, he found child pornography on ''cookies'' -- stored information from past Internet use -- on a friend's laptop computer previously owned by a priest in the diocese. Guido said he brought the matter to top church officials. They took the allegations seriously enough to contact the police department. Guido said the diocese sent the accused priest to a psychological evaluation, but then has allowed him to continue serving as a priest.

From a legal standpoint, the diocese didn't do anything wrong. But from a moral standpoint, and from the standpoint of its much-vaunted zero-tolerance policy (a policy imposed on the diocese as part of a legal settlement), the diocese has behaved disgracefully.

In his letter to the DA, Guido explains his frustration: ''I am deeply disappointed at the diocese because they decided to only give him 'psychological help.' But if history can teach us anything about these types of cases, one can see that this does not help. Many of the priests who have been convicted of child molestation or rape were given psychological help at one time or another. I would have wanted to see him ... removed from any activity where he has contact with minors. I just see him as a walking time bomb.''

Guido said the diocese told him the accused priest admitted having ''sexual immaturities.'' All this time, I thought sexual immaturity referred to male teen-agers who liked to tell bawdy jokes.

Months ago, when Bishop Brown visited the Register for an Editorial Board meeting, he said the church has learned many lessons from its past handling of sexual abuse. In the past, he said, pedophilia was viewed as something that could be treated with psychological counseling, but now they know differently.

Fine. Then why hasn't the above-mentioned priest been removed from his post? Why doesn't the bishop deal seriously with the reasons two abuse victims left the abuse panel?

''Bishop Brown is saying that if someone is suspected of sexual misconduct, they are removed from active ministry immediately,'' Guido told me. ''This happened more than a year ago. If child pornography is not sexual misconduct, I don't know what is. Diocese officials need to be held accountable, especially since they present themselves as white knights cleaning up someone else's mess. [Bishop Brown] is just protecting his own. He is not looking out for the well-being of the people.''

What more can one say?


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