2 Catholic Dioceses Settle Abuse Suit

Woman alleges priest molested her and two other priests ignored her pleas for help

Los Angeles Times/April 2, 2002
By William Lobdell

The Roman Catholic dioceses of Orange and Los Angeles paid $1.2 million Monday to a 37-year-old woman who alleged in a lawsuit that a popular priest molested her as a teenager, got her pregnant and paid for her abortion.

The church's settlement with Lori Haigh was the second high-profile settlement the two dioceses have paid in eight months to a victim of priestly abuse. It was the latest in a mounting string of cases throughout the nation that have focused attention on the church's tolerance of abusive clergy.

Haigh, of San Francisco, held a morning news conference Monday at her attorney's office in Irvine, and then filed a criminal complaint against Father John Lenihan with the Orange County Sheriff's Department. A spokesman for the department said it would launch an investigation.

Haigh's lawsuit also claimed that two other priests--now high-ranking officials with the Diocese of Orange--ignored her pleas for help 20 years ago. She said she was abused from age 14 to 17.

Lenihan's attorney, Ron Talmo, declined to comment. But in a written statement, Bishop of Orange Tod D. Brown said, "I am deeply sorry for the hurt caused by the actions of Father Lenihan, and extend my apology to Ms. Haigh and all victims of sexual clergy abuse."

According to church officials, the two other priests deny ever meeting Haigh. One of them, Msgr. Lawrence J. Baird, held his own press conference later in the day and threatened to file a defamation suit against Haigh.

At her press conference, Haigh said she got to know Lenihan because she played the guitar in a youth group that performed at Sunday evening Mass at St. Norbert Church in Orange, where he was a priest.

Haigh said that because she was involved in church activities five days a week, the molestations occurred frequently. Lenihan would give her rides to and from different youth-group activities, she said, and would pull off at secluded places along the road to molest her, she said.

"My parents felt I was safe with the church group," said Haigh, adding that her parents didn't know about the sexual abuse until years later. "And that it was OK to be brought home by your priest at 2 a.m. in the morning."

When she got pregnant at 16, she said Lenihan "told me that I had to get an abortion." She said she tried to commit suicide, cutting her wrists with a butcher knife. Still, she didn't tell her parents.

She said the man she still sometimes calls "Father John" drove her to the bank to get the money,

"He didn't seem particularly concerned about the status of my soul," she said. "He gave me the money and said, of course, that he couldn't come with me for the abortion," which Catholic teaching regards as a mortal sin.

Lenihan, who previously had admitted in a separate case to molesting a minor and numerous affairs with women, was ousted in September as pastor of St. Edward Church in Dana Point and last week agreed to be removed from the priesthood.

Haigh said that in 1982, three years into the alleged molestations, she went to Msgr. Baird, a favorite priest of her family and now the current diocesan spokesman, about her relationship with Lenihan. After she finished speaking, she claims, Baird came around the desk, kissed her and rubbed himself against her.

She said she pushed him away, partly because there was a window in the door and she was afraid of she would get into trouble.

"As I was leaving, Father Baird gave me his telephone number and told me to call him if I needed to 'talk again,' " Haigh said.

Baird Says Accusation Is Without Foundation

Baird said at his press conference that he has no memory of meeting Haigh, but he does have "100% memory that I have never made any inappropriate contact with any person during my 33 years as a priest. . . . This accusation is absolutely without any foundation."

At one tense moment, Baird directly addressed Haigh, who attended his press conference, saying, "I pray for you."

Haigh said afterward that she had expected an apology from Baird. "But I'm not afraid," she said. "I'm telling the truth."

Haigh also alleged that a few weeks later when she went to complain to Msgr. John Urell--now the Diocese of Orange's vicar general, who deals with priest molestation cases--he accused her of lying and said, "How long have you been telling this story?" He also told her never to be seen in church again, she claims.

Even more than the molestations, Haigh said, Urell's treatment of her caused the most emotional damage over the years.

"It was a horrible betrayal," she said. "I just sat in my car and cried."

Urell was out of town Monday and unavailable for comment.

Haigh alleged that in 1981 or 1982, a law enforcement officer caught Lenihan molesting her in his silver Mercury Monarch at a secluded spot along Silverado Canyon.

Haigh said the officer put her in his patrol car and asked her age, which she told him was 16.

She said the officer then spent about 15 minutes with Lenihan, before telling her, "I don't want to ever see you here with him again," and putting her back in Lenihan's car.

The Diocese of Orange paid 80% of the settlement, with Los Angeles paying the remainder. The Archdiocese of Los Angeles was named in the suit for two reasons. In 1978, Cardinal Timothy Manning, who died in 1989, had been warned about Lenihan's behavior by the father of another teenager, Mary Grant. Grant, whom Lenihan admitted to molesting, was paid $25,000 in 1991 by the church. Also, Haigh claimed that Lenihan had introduced her to a priest in a San Pedro parish, who also tried to have sex with her.

Tod Tamberg, media relations director of the Los Angeles archdiocese, said the church tried without success to identify the San Pedro priest mentioned in Haigh's complaint. But he said Haigh provided few details to help identify him.

"She didn't have his name. She had very little identity information," Tamberg said.

Tamberg noted that the Los Angeles archdiocese's share of the $1.2-million settlement to Haigh was $240,000, most of which is covered by insurance.

"The archdiocese settled the case based on the estimated cost of defending against the lawsuit, not on the merits of the allegations regarding the unidentified priest," Tamberg said in a prepared statement.

Haigh said her experience with Urell, Baird and the police officer caused her to keep silent for the past two decades.

"I felt coming forward would be futile," she said.

But she said a September column by Los Angeles Times columnist Steve Lopez about Lenihan got her angry enough to file her lawsuit in December.

In the column, Lenihan, under the pseudonym of "Father X," admitted to some sexual improprieties, including those involving Grant, but not to any misdeeds involving Haigh.

During the press conference, Grant sat by Haigh.

Last August, Ryan DiMaria received $5.2 million from the two dioceses to settle allegations of sexual abuse by former Msgr. Michael Harris.

Haigh's attorney, Katherine K. Freberg, who also represented DiMaria, said the reason for Haigh's relatively low settlement was questions about the "statute of limitations." If the case were more current, Freberg said, her client would have received more.

Haigh said the nearly four years of sexual abuse stopped when "Father John moved on to another woman."

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