In dismissing a priest Monday for molesting a teenage boy 19 years ago, Bishop of Orange Tod D. Brown took a number of steps rare for the traditionally secretive Roman Catholic Church.
He brought aboard a crisis public relations specialist. He allowed the priest, Michael Pecharich, to say goodbye to many of his 16,000 parishioners at services this past weekend. He set up discussion sessions after Mass for shocked congregants. He even sent press releases to the media and allowed news photographers to take pictures as Pecharich gave his farewell.
The public display stands in marked contrast to the approach taken by the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, which quietly let go as many as a dozen priests in the past two weeks under the same zero-tolerance policy the Orange diocese follows. That policy was part of a settlement agreement reached in August by the two dioceses over separate accusations of molestations by priests.
"This is their track record," said Mary Grant, a victim of sexual abuse by an Orange County priest and founder of the Southern California chapter of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests. "There's something always concealed. It's not acceptable to hide the perpetrators."
In Orange County, Grant and other observers of the church said they were generally pleased with the new move toward openness. "They should be open and honest like this," said David Belz, a longtime church member and Pecharich supporter. "There's going to be pain no matter what. To handle it up front is what's appropriate."
The new approach is not without critics. At San Francisco Solano, some parishioners thought the matter should have been handled privately and resented the presence of the press at an emotional time for their congregation. Nervous priests wondered why the bishop made the announcement while the church officials were still checking the backgrounds of other diocese employees.
Diocesan officials admit to struggling with the details of openness: How can they balance the rights of the victims, the clergy and the public?
"It's a learning process about what's the best way to do this," said Father Michael McKiernan, director of clergy personnel. "Is it better for someone to just disappear? Or should he say goodbye?"
And other congregants, stung by the decision to remove Pecharich, have asked why the bishop, who advocates openness, didn't visit the parish Sunday to face angry parishioners. The news was announced at services in Rancho Santa Margarita on Saturday evening and Sunday morning, and the dismissal became effective Monday.
"He is the shepherd of his flock, and his flock was in the most dire emergency it could be in," parishioner Bob Beauchamp said. "Even if Father Michael said, 'I don't want [the bishop] there,' he should have been there. It was cowardly."
Beauchamp also said the diocesan officials' explanations changed with each meeting, including the reason for the bishop's absence. "Their story got better as the meetings went on," he said.
Parishioner Maureen McCarthy said she didn't know if news of Pecharich's departure could ever remain within the congregation, though she wished it could have. "I never would have liked it to go this public," she said. "I don't see why his dirty laundry had to be aired."
Priests, though not willing to openly criticize their boss, have asked why the public announcement wasn't held off until a task force was able to complete its investigation into whether diocesan priests have substantiated molestation charges in their backgrounds.
But Brown, who was installed as bishop of Orange in 1998, said it's his duty to report to the public the cases as they are found, adding that the process should be finished shortly.
"We just think it's important to deal with it as it becomes known and as we ourselves become aware of it," Brown said. He said the diocese reported the matter to county Child Protective Services in 1996, when it found out about the molestation.
As part of the more public approach, Pecharich wrote a letter to his parishioners that was handed out Sunday as they left Mass.
One San Francisco Solano parishioner who liked the new approach is Meg Waters, who handles crisis public relations for such groups as the El Toro Reuse Planning Authority, a coalition of cities fighting an airport at El Toro. She heard about her pastor's removal when the diocese called Feb. 26 to enlist her services when making the public announcement. She said she spent the next few days talking with church officials and developing a plan.
"I have to at least praise Bishop Brown for doing the right thing, not keeping it secret," said Katherine K. Freberg, an Irvine attorney who settled a molestation case against the Diocese of Orange for a record $5.2 million in August.
But she added that she didn't think Pecharich should have been allowed to take the pulpit a final time.
"I can understand why they allow it, but the church is coddling these priests. Until they treat them for what they are--criminals--there's not going to be real change."