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Diocese Straying From Vow?

August 03, 2003

Roman Catholic Church officials have every reason to show parishioners and the public that they are turning over a new leaf in the way they handle child-molestation accusations. Unfortunately, the latest cases show lamentable foot-dragging by the Diocese of Orange despite a court settlement that requires the diocese to act decisively in such matters. In addition, it now has no victim representatives on its board overseeing sex-abuse cases after two molestation victims quit within the last several months, calling the panel a window-dressing sham.

Give the church credit where it's due: Because of a new policy of fingerprinting Orange County diocese employees, officials discovered that a lay choir director had been convicted in 1986 of lewd conduct with a 16-year-old boy. He went to work for the diocese one year later, while he was on probation, but the church first found out about his past in April of this year.

What they did with the information is another matter. A panel overseeing such cases allowed the choir director to stay in his current post while it considered the case. Three months later, a member of the panel quit in frustration over the delay. Only after Times reporter William Lobdell questioned diocesan officials about the choir director did the panel even tell the auxiliary bishop about the man's past. The church fired the director the next day.

Diocesan officials say they were following a "deliberative process" that was interrupted by the sudden limelight. Auxiliary Bishop Jaime Soto said the termination was "important because it was becoming a public matter."

Actually, the termination was important because, as part of a $5.2-million settlement in a child molestation case two years ago, the diocese agreed to fire any employee, from priest to janitor, deemed guilty of sexual abuse. That agreement was supposed to force church officials to act quickly in protecting minors. The policy is rigid, yes, but that is because previous church lapses allowed priests to continue molesting. Diocesan officials rightly point out that during the last two years, they have fired nine employees over sex offenses, six of them priests.

But three months of deliberation that end only because of outside pressure hardly qualifies as decisive action to protect children. Church officials say the case was complicated because the choir director obtained a "certificate of rehabilitation" in 1996 from then-Los Angeles County Dist. Atty. Gil Garcetti. This legal petition did not change the conviction, however. Nor did the diocese act at any time during those three months to keep the choir director away from children.

Foot-dragging also was evident this last week when the diocese suspended two priests who were found to have child pornography on their computers. Bishop of Orange Tod D. Brown deserves credit for proposing that possession of child pornography be added to the diocesan zero-tolerance policy. But the question remains: why did it take so long -- two years in one case, 19 months in the other -- to act on these two cases?

It will take a redoubled effort to convince victims, and the public, that they can count on the church to act according to the dictates of the law and its own declarations. The first step would be to find molestation victims willing to sit on the oversight panel.

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