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Contempt order is sought in suit

A former student's legal team alleges O.C. bishop sent a key witness out of the country to prevent his further testimony.

September 20, 2007|Christine Hanley | Times Staff Writer

Lawyers for a former Mater Dei High School student suing the Roman Catholic Diocese of Orange in a sex abuse case are seeking to hold Bishop Tod Brown in contempt of court, arguing that he allowed his chief investigator of molestation complaints to be sent to a Canadian treatment center so that he could avoid testifying.

Msgr. John Urell is under a court order to complete a deposition that abruptly ended in July after about six hours of questioning, when he became overwhelmed with emotion and walked out in tears, telling the judge he was unsure whether he would ever be able to finish.

Brown later testified during his deposition that he made the decision this month to send Urell to Southdown Institute, a facility that treats clergy for a variety of conditions, knowing at the time that the monsignor was required to resume his deposition.

Brown "has acted with knowing and willful contravention of a court order for the further deposition of Msgr. Urell, by intentionally removing him from the country and therefore the jurisdiction of this court, for the apparent purpose of depriving plaintiff of the testimony," the student's attorneys argued in court papers filed Wednesday.

Peter Callahan, the lead attorney representing the diocese, had not seen the contempt motion but dismissed it as a media ploy. He suggested that it was misdirected because it would make more sense to hold the witness Urell accountable, rather than his employer, the bishop.

"But that would not be as newsworthy," he said. "I've never heard of an employer being in contempt because an employee is too sick to testify."

A spokesman for the bishop did not return a phone call.

Callahan said Urell's attorney, Patrick A. Hennessey, has offered to provide the court with a physician's report of the monsignor's medical condition, provided that all sides agree to keep the information confidential.

Hennessey released a statement Wednesday that said the monsignor suffers from acute anxiety disorder related to his role as the diocese's point man in investigating sexual abuse cases, and is in no condition to testify. According to Hennessey, Urell needs at least three months of intense treatment and hospitalization before his physician can determine whether he is healthy enough to withstand the rigors of a deposition.

The student's attorneys allege that the diocese is trying to hide the truth.

"The bottom line is they don't want Msgr. Urell to testify because he knows too much," said Venus Soltan, the attorney who filed the contempt motion.

The motion is the latest volley in a lawsuit that has raised questions about how Brown, Urell and other diocese officials handled allegations against priests and laypersons working at Catholic churches and schools in Orange County.

The lawsuit was filed by a woman identified as Jane C.R. Doe, who accuses former Mater Dei assistant basketball coach Jeff Andrade of molesting her for more than a year, starting when she was 15. In his deposition taken as part of the lawsuit, Andrade admitted he had had sex with the teen.

Urell is considered a key witness because he was the diocesan official in charge of investigating allegations of sexual abuse that occurred from the late 1980s to the early 2000s. He is the pastor at St. Norbert's Catholic Church in Orange.

During his July 27 deposition, Urell testified that he recalled 20 to 25 cases in which an alleged victim or his or her family reported abuse by priests or laypersons at the diocese. He said the only case he remembered that was reported to police was the one involving Andrade.

Shortly before his deposition was cut short, he testified that his "most painful" responsibility was dealing with the sex abuse allegations.

"I don't look to remember them. I try to forget them."

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christine.hanley@latimes.com

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