For more than two decades, officials in the Roman Catholic Diocese of Orange covered up for priests who molested children, shuffling predators from parish to parish and diocese to diocese, protecting them from prosecution and failing to warn parishioners of the danger, according to church documents released Tuesday.
More than 10,000 pages of letters, handwritten notes, memos and other documents detailing church actions were released from the personnel files of 15 priests and teachers as part of a court-approved $100-million settlement reached in December between the Orange Diocese and 90 alleged molestation victims. A judge ruled, however, that he was "powerless" to order the release of files on eight other priests and teachers.
According to the newly released documents, church officials dumped one serial molester in Tijuana. They welcomed a convicted child abuser from another state into their diocese, even though they knew he faced a new allegation. When he was accused once again, they sent him to a New Mexico rehabilitation center with a notation: "No one else will take you." And they offered a repeat abuser up to $19,000 to leave the priesthood quietly.
Even as they coddled abusive priests, church officials stonewalled and ostracized victims' families, the documents show.
"It is hard to believe that our spiritual leaders would knowingly sacrifice lives of innocent children ... to keep up the facade and [live] a lie," a woman wrote in a 1986 letter to Diocesan Administrator John T. Steinbock, now bishop of Fresno, after learning that Andrew Christian Andersen, a Huntington Beach priest who allegedly molested her son in 1983, had gone on to sexually abuse three more boys.
"How many more innocent children does he have to molest before something is done about this sick man!" she wrote.
The pattern of deception involved two bishops of Orange -- William R. Johnson, now deceased, and Norman F. McFarland, who retired in 1998 -- and Auxiliary Bishop Michael P. Driscoll, now bishop of Boise. It also involved Msgr. John Urell, then a top diocesan official and now pastor of St. Norbert Church in Orange.
Bishops in Milwaukee; Baker, Ore.; and Tijuana helped the Orange Diocese shuffle molesting priests around, according to the documents. And an archbishop from Panama who was working in Orange County intimidated an alleged victim's family so they would not contact police, according to a mother's letter.
Driscoll, who handled allegations of clergy sexual misconduct under both Johnson and McFarland, took the unusual step this month of issuing an apology in anticipation of documents revealing his role in the Orange County scandal. "I am deeply sorry that the way we handled cases at that time allowed children to be victimized by permitting some priests to remain in ministry, for not disclosing their behavior to those who might be at risk, and for not monitoring their actions more closely," he said in a statement posted on a Boise diocesan website.
Driscoll declined to comment further. McFarland and Urell couldn't be reached for comment Tuesday.
"I would say Bishop Driscoll's a sick, immoral person to allow something like this to take place," said David Guerrero, 37, of Palm Springs, who was allegedly abused beginning at age 8 by Father Siegfried Widera, who was already convicted of molestation when he joined the Orange Diocese. Guerrero said he received "several million" in the settlement. "And now he's the bishop of Boise? It's disgusting."
The culture of shielding predator priests and ignoring victims' complaints in Orange closely parallels that of other dioceses where church personnel files have been made public.
The release of confidential priest personnel files in Boston triggered the eruption of the church's national sexual abuse scandal three years ago. The disclosures led to the resignation of Cardinal Bernard F. Law of Boston as archbishop, thousands of lawsuits across the nation, and a series of reforms enacted by U.S. bishops.
In California, nearly 1,000 claims were filed under a 2003 state law that suspended the statute of limitations for one year to allow plaintiffs to sue institutions that failed to protect children from sexual abuse.
So far, Bishop of Orange Tod D. Brown is the only California prelate to resolve all of his diocese's sexual abuse claims and make public some of his priests' personnel files without a court order. But files were released for only about one-third of the 44 diocesan employees accused of wrongdoing -- 31 priests, 10 educators, two nuns and one brother.
Files for some of the accused were not released because they were not part of the December settlement, because they belonged to other dioceses or religious orders, or because they objected.
On Tuesday, Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Peter D. Lichtman said he had no jurisdiction to release the files for those who objected because the lawsuits had been settled.