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OC Bishop Faces Contempt of Court

  Court Watch  -   POSTED: 2007/10/10 15:10

The sexual abuse case was settled and Roman Catholic Bishop Tod Brown could have walked away without ever saying a thing about it in court. But an attempt to clear his name of allegations he helped a high-ranking church official avoid testifying has made Brown the first U.S. bishop who could face jail time in the church sex abuse scandal.

A judge began criminal contempt-of-court proceedings against Brown on Tuesday, just three days after he agreed to pay nearly $7 million to settle the lawsuits that led to contempt allegations surrounding Brown's decision to send the church official to Canada.

Before the hearing, plaintiffs' lawyers said they expected the judge to dismiss the contempt filing because the case had been settled. But Diocese of Orange attorney Peter Callahan insisted the proceedings go forward to clear the bishop's name, and Judge Gail Andler took him up on the offer.

Brown waived his arraignment, which lawyers said was the equivalent of a not guilty plea.

"This is one more example of the diocese stepping in their own mess," said John Manly, a lawyer for the plaintiffs in the case. "Now we can have our cake and eat it too."

Plaintiffs' attorneys had accused Brown of sending Msgr. John Urell to Ontario, Canada, for medical treatment before he could complete a deposition in one of four cases settled Friday. The monsignor was responsible for handling sexual abuse allegations against the diocese.

Brown testified in a pretrial deposition that he made the decision to send Urell to the Southdown Institute, although he knew Urell "had given a deposition and was going to be called back for further deposition."

He said Tuesday the facility is one of few that specializes in psychological care for clergy and because it could take him immediately.

Andler allowed attorneys to deliver their opening statements in the contempt case before postponing the rest of the hearing until Dec. 3. She said a subpoena for Urell's testimony would remain in effect until that date.

Callahan will argue at the hearing to dismiss the contempt matter.

Venus Soltan, a plaintiffs attorney, said Brown sent Urell away to suppress critical evidence about the diocese's handling of sexual abuse. Urell went away a week after he broke down during his deposition by plaintiffs' attorneys.

"When Msgr. Urell was there for half a day, he couldn't take it because he was too upset about having to testify about hiding all these allegations," she said in court. "This is plain and simply hiding the facts."

Callahan, however, said there was no evidence that a court order was in effect when Brown sent Urell away and asserted that a plaintiffs' attorney had verged on perjury in the court filings that precipitated the contempt hearing.

Urell knew nothing about the current case, which involved allegations that a lay assistant basketball coach molested a 16-year-old girl at Mater Dei High School, Callahan said.

"I was disappointed that the judge didn't rule. We were hoping that the bishop would have the opportunity to exonerate himself by telling the truth but he didn't get the opportunity," he said.

At a news conference outside court, two of the young women who were plaintiffs in the cases angrily asked Brown and his attorneys questions about how church officials handled their cases.

Brown did not respond to the questions directly, but apologized.

"To both of you, and to the other victims, all I can do is repeat once again, my sincerest and deepest and most compassionate apology on the part of the church for what happened to you, which was terrible and sinful and criminal and reprehensible," Brown said. "I'm just so very sorry it happened."

Three years ago, Brown agreed to pay $100 million to settle lawsuits from about 90 sexual abuse victims.

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