On a brisk April evening in Santa Barbara, hundreds of LGBT activists and allies crowded under the lights of an artificial Paris, their party backdropped by a towering replica of the Eiffel Tower. As the guests ate and mingled, muscular male performers clad in boxer briefs and body paint danced for the crowd, happily posing for pictures under the resplendent lights of five disco balls. Outside, stilt walkers wove their way through donors looking to get some air under the night sky and strings of lights hung specifically for the event.
It was—yes—a gay old time for the Pacific Pride Foundation's third-annual Royal Ball, the Santa Barbara nonprofit's largest fund-raiser of the year, and it raised hundreds of thousands for the organization's outreach and service programs. Only one thing was odd: the venue. The Royal Ball was hosted at the Bacara Resort and Spa, a gorgeous hotel that's one of the crown jewels of the Irvine-based Pacific Hospitality Group, an offshoot of the Busch Group, helmed by unapologetically anti-gay, Catholic entrepreneur Timothy Busch.
How anti-gay? In 2008, Busch donated $10,000 to the Yes on Prop. 8 campaign. During the 2012 presidential election, he donated $80,000 to the Romney campaign and $30,800 to the Republican National Committee, the same year the Bacara first hosted the Royal Ball and the year Pacific Hospitality bought the resort.
“So many people, including those of faith, miss the point that [homosexual relations] are against the natural law and categorically wrong,” Busch told Catholic World Report in 2011. “Throughout history, any civilization that has embraced open homosexuality has failed. Ours will fail, too, if we continue in this direction.”
“Some concerns were actually brought up when [Busch] first bought the hotel,” says Jason Patton, development director of the Pacific Pride Foundation. “It was our second year holding the event and our first year at Bacara. They didn't finalize the sale until after we had a contract in place.”
He continues, “But we met with the senior management at Bacara, and they assured us that they were behind us 100 percent. Everyone there, from the general manager to the senior manager of PR to the executive chef has been perfect to us.”
The fact that a Busch hotel even hosted an LGBT event could be a surprise, if sexual orientation weren't a protected class in California. But talking a big faith talk while walking the capitalist walk has been par for the course for the 59-year-old, who has carved out a name for himself in conservative Catholic circles as a hero of sorts: someone who has successfully made peace with God and Mammon, the fine points be damned.
A Michigan native, Busch moved to Southern California in 1982 to start the Busch Firm, a law firm catering to the needs of businesses, the obscenely wealthy and religious institutions. A decade later, he and other Catholic parents in South County launched St. Anne School, a private Catholic elementary school in Laguna Niguel not affiliated with the Diocese of Orange at the time. In 2003, Busch helped to found JSerra High School, a Catholic school in San Juan Capistrano also out of the governance of the Orange diocese, run instead by a board of directors on which he sits.
Around the time of JSerra's founding, Busch was making bank as Garden Grove redeveloped its resort area in an attempt to snip money away from Anaheim and the Disneyland Resort. In 2000, Garden Grove gave away millions of dollars worth of land to developers in the guise of housing and urban development, pushing out working-class businesses and residential parks. Busch was able to build the Crowne Plaza Anaheim Resort and quickly earned pickets from workers demanding Busch let his employees unionize; it didn't happen. While profiting handsomely from Garden Grove's giveaway, Busch was also active in Anaheim politics. He was one of former Anaheim Mayor Curt Pringle's largest donors, giving $40,000 to Pringle's failed 1998 campaign for State Treasurer. He also invested in the former mayor's lobbying firm and leased office space to Pringle for his consulting firm.
As Busch's wealth grew, so did his commitment to expressing his Catholicism in business ventures. His winery, Trinitas Cellars based out of Napa Valley, occasionally names its wines after religious figures and symbols and prints a blessing on each label. One hotel—as well as his corporate headquarters—features a chapel that hosts Mass. And as Pacific Hospitality grew, on-demand porn was driven out of rooms in favor of a bible, rosary and crucifix.
“You're catching people at their weakest point,” Busch told Life Site News, a website run by a Canadian anti-abortion organization, about his decision to not include porn in his hotels (no word if the wifi blocks Tube8). “If they're single and traveling, and they arrive and it's 10 o'clock at night, and they see these movies, and they're flipping through it . . . And I don't know if you've ever seen these hotel things, but it practically forces you to the porn. You can hardly get away from it.”
The same year he made that statement, Busch founded the Napa Institute, an organization intended to prepare Catholic leaders to defend their religion in an increasingly secular America; it holds annual conferences at a Busch hotel in Napa Valley. The 2014 version will feature far-right favorites such as cardinals William Levada and James Harvey, as well as Philadelphia Archbishop Charles Chaput, who made national headlines in 2004 for suggesting that voting for John Kerry as president amounted to sinning. Busch is also active with the Magis Institute, which argues that science proves the existence of God, and Legatus, an organization of Catholic CEOs and their spouses founded by fellow Michigan arch-Catholic Tom Monaghan, founder of Domino's Pizza.
But Busch's zeal to be a Catholic superman has occasionally landed him on the wrong side of morality. In starting JSerra, the school originally sought the advice of John Lenihan, a priest who had admitted to molesting teenage girls; on the board of directors for St. Anne, Busch's wife, Steph, sits alongside John Urell, the man in charge of covering up for pedophile priests in Orange County for decades. Busch helped to fund a KOCE-TV documentary about the Orange diocese that gleefully pretended its sex-abuse scandal didn't happen. And speaking of diddling Catholics: In 2011, JSerra Spanish teacher and volleyball coach Ricardo Aldana was arrested and charged with molesting a 14-year-old student. Months before the arrest, the student's mother claims she contacted the school about Aldana, but her concerns fell on deaf ears. JSerra is currently facing a civil suit over the Aldana affair.
Busch's office was contacted for an interview. His assistant, Angela Hoy, returned an initial call but has since been unavailable. But despite his involvement with the Catholic Church, his businesses are still doing their part to support the LGBT community, at least in Santa Barbara.
“We're incredibly happy,” Patton says. “We've had a lot of people come up to us to tell us this is the best event we've ever hosted. Many people call the Royal Ball the best party in Santa Barbara.”
Busch the LGBT hero—who'da thunk it?