Priest sex abuse case settles at $1.2 million

By Chelsea J. CarterThe Associated Press
Tuesday April 02, 2002

IRVINE — A woman who claimed she was sexually abused by priests more than 20 years ago will receive a $1.2 million settlement from the Roman Catholic Diocese of Orange and the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, the parties said Monday. 

Lori Capobianco Haigh claimed in a December lawsuit that an Orange diocese priest first sexually assaulted her in 1979 when she was 14, and impregnated her at age 16. 

Haigh, who told a press conference that the priest, the Rev. John Lenihan, paid for her to have an abortion, said she was surprised at how quickly her lawsuit was settled. 

“I was prepared for years. It says that they know,” said Haigh, 37, who now lives in the San Francisco Bay area. 

Most of the settlement will be paid by the Orange diocese. The Los Angeles archdiocese said its investigation could not confirm alleged abuse by an unidentified priest in its jurisdiction and it settled only because of the cost of defending itself. 

Bishop Tod D. Brown, head of the Orange diocese, issued a statement Monday in which he apologized to the woman and other victims of sexual abuse. 

“I am deeply sorry for the hurt caused,” Brown said. 

“The very painful reality of the injury caused by attacks on the innocent and vulnerable by a few priests have profoundly affected us all,” he said. “The Church should be a safe place.” 

Haigh recounted her allegations at the office of her attorney Katherine Freberg. 

“When I was 16 years old, Father John got me pregnant. When I told him about the pregnancy he told me that I had to get an abortion,” Haigh said. 

She said the priest, who she met when he was assigned to St. Norbert Church in Orange, paid for an abortion at Planned Parenthood. 

The Los Angeles archdiocese will pay $240,000, or 20 percent, of the settlement, archdiocesan spokesman Tod M. Tamberg said in a news release. 

“In two paragraphs of the 143-paragraph complaint, Ms. Haigh alleged that an unidentified priest of the Los Angeles archdiocese engaged in sexual contact with her that occurred around 20 years ago,” the release said. 

An investigation “did not yield specific enough information to identify this person or confirm whether the events described by Ms. Haigh ever occurred,” the release said. The allegations were reported to Los Angeles police nonetheless, he said. 

“The archdiocese settled (this) case based on the estimated cost of defending against (Haigh’s) lawsuit, not on the merits of the allegations regarding the unidentified priest,” Tamberg said. 

Lenihan, 56, formerly of St. Edward Church in Dana Point, resigned last year after admitting sexual relationships over the years with several women and teen-age girls. 

He has agreed to ask Pope John Paul II to be removed from the priesthood. 

Lenihan told church officials in 1991 that he sexually abused a teen-age girl in the 1970s. The Diocese of Orange settled a lawsuit that year for $25,000. The victim, Mary Grant, now 38, attended Haigh’s press conference on the latest settlement. 

Freberg previously represented a man who said he was molested in 1991 at age 17 by Monsignor Michael Harris, principal of Santa Margarita Catholic High School in the Orange diocese. 

Last August, the Archdiocese of Los Angeles and the Diocese of Orange settled the Harris case for $5.2 million. Harris, 56, denied the allegations but agreed to leave the priesthood. He has been on inactive leave from the church since 1994. 

The mother of another alleged victim of Harris reported the alleged abuse in 1993 to a priest of the Los Angeles archdiocese. 

Another priest of the Orange diocese, Michael Pecharich, 56, was forced to resign in March as head of Santa Margarita after admitting he molested a boy in 1983. His case had been known to church officials since 1996. 

The U.S. Catholic church has been rocked by a clergy abuse scandal that started when Boston priest John Geoghan was accused of abusing more than 100 children while being shuffled from parish to parish. He was convicted of indecent assault and battery and sentenced to nine to 10 years for fondling a 10-year-old boy in 1991.