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A Bishop's Bold Move

Tod D. Brown's role in settling O.C. abuse cases points out his contrasts with Cardinal Mahony.

December 05, 2004|Larry Stammer, William Lobdell and Jean Guccione | Times Staff Writers

One is the shy, mild-mannered Roman Catholic bishop of Orange. The other is a prince of the church, the cardinal archbishop of Los Angeles, who has been unhesitant in using the power of his office to both bless and cajole.

But the record $100-million settlement reached last week by Bishop of Orange Tod D. Brown with 87 sexual abuse victims brought the prelate out of the shadow of his former seminary classmate, Cardinal Roger M. Mahony.

Brown is now the bishop in the national spotlight. His decision to approve the massive payout, the way he was embraced by sobbing victims the night of the settlement and his decision not to fight the release of internal church documents have highlighted the two men's differences in method and tactics.

"We have two styles: One is a man of action, the other is a man of words," said attorney Jeffrey Anderson of St. Paul, Minn., who represents hundreds of victims in California and elsewhere.

While Mahony has often expressed his desire to settle all 544 abuse cases in his archdiocese, Brown became the first bishop in California to resolve all the cases in his diocese.

Those familiar with the behind-the-scenes negotiations in both dioceses said Brown has been relatively transparent and cooperative, while Mahony has employed hardball legal strategies.

Brown has cooperated with prosecutors and lawyers for victims by turning over church files on priests. In contrast, Mahony has thrown up stiff resistance to divulging documents that could show how the church handled priests who had been accused of sexual abuse. Even now, Mahony's attorneys are not ruling out the possibility of challenging a California law that gave victims the right to sue the church no matter how long ago the abuse occurred.

"I think the whole goal is to try to have these matters behind us," said Illinois appellate court Justice Anne M. Burke, former chairwoman of a sexual abuse review board appointed by the U.S. bishops. "It appears [Brown] pulled out all the stops to try to get things done.... It's a model for the rest of California as opposed to being adversarial."

The varying perceptions of the two men took root in 2002 at the beginning of a scandal that has shaken the Catholic Church and deepened since then. The sight of victims weeping in Brown's arms and thanking him after the Orange County settlement was reached Thursday cemented that image.

The bishops' different tacks have strained a once-close relationship that began at St. John's Seminary in Camarillo in the early 1960s.

They both started in ministry in the former diocese of Monterey-Fresno. Brown vacationed annually with Mahony at the cardinal's cabin near Yosemite. Observers say Brown would have never been appointed the bishop of Orange, head of the church's 10th-largest diocese, without Mahony's approval.

With a roundish face and glasses, Brown, 68, who became bishop in 1998, could pass for an unassuming businessman were it not for his Roman collar. Known in his former diocese of Boise, Idaho, as a firm administrator, he likes to delegate work and prefers to meet people individually or in small groups.

He often appears uneasy in public, as when he nervously answered questions on "Nightline" last February. At public events, he usually reads from prepared statements and rarely strays from them.

But last January, the San Francisco native drew wide media attention when he nailed a document to the doors of Holy Family Cathedral in Orange proclaiming his diocese's commitment to help heal those who had been sexually abused.

Mahony, also 68, became archbishop of Los Angeles in 1985. He is as lean as a desert ascetic and magisterial in his bearing. He is rarely photographed in groups when he is not modestly clasping his hands in front of himself.

He has a reputation as "media savvy," and Pope John Paul II has referred to him as "Hollywood." Mahony frequently goes to Rome to confer at the Vatican and is an avid user of the Internet to stay in touch.

Mahony, too, has reached out to victims. During a meeting of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, Mahony and a sexual abuse victim sat praying in facing chairs in a quiet corner.

When they had to dismiss priests accused of sexual abuse, the prelates took different approaches.

Mahony dismissed several priests in 2002 with no public notice, and the archdiocese refused for a time to provide the names or even the number of clerics involved.

About the same time, Brown fired a popular priest for molesting a boy more than three decades ago. He took advice from a crisis public relations specialist and allowed the priest, Michael Pecharich, to say goodbye to many of his 16,000 parishioners at weekend services. He set up discussion sessions after Mass for shocked congregants and sent press releases to the media.

A year later, Brown gave authorities a letter written by an Orange priest to Pope John Paul II asking to be released from the priesthood. In it, Father John Lenihan admitted to two affairs with teenagers.

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