LOS ANGELES – DiMARIA (8/1/01)
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By Jean O. Pasco and William Lobdell
The Catholic Church disclosed Monday that it has paid $5.2 million and made significant changes in the way it handles allegations of sexual abuse to settle a lawsuit alleging that a prominent Orange County priest and onetime high school principal molested one of his students.
The agreement between the Los Angeles and Orange dioceses and Ryan DiMaria of Laguna Hills appears to be the largest publicly disclosed payout of its kind to an individual in church history, experts said. Under the new guidelines, the dioceses have agreed to create an independent victim assistance program for youths who say they have been molested.
Orange County Superior Court Judge James Gray also ordered the dioceses to issue public apologies to DiMaria and four other teenage boys who claimed Msgr. Michael A. Harris molested them.
Harris, nicknamed "Father Hollywood" in the Orange County Catholic community because of his charisma and good looks, agreed under the settlement to apply to the Vatican to be removed from the priesthood. But in a statement, he steadfastly denied that he molested anyone and accused church leaders of settling the case "for their own business reasons."
Diocese of Orange Bishop Tod D. Brown issued a statement Monday expressing "profound sorrow" for the five accusers and saluting their courage for coming forward.
"Although Michael Harris continues to deny any wrongdoing, the Diocese of Orange has grave doubts about his innocence in these matters, taking into consideration the number of complaints made against him, the similarity of those complaints and the apparent sincerity of the persons making these statements," Brown said.
Tod Tamberg, spokesman for the Los Angeles archdiocese, said officials there are still in communication with DiMaria's attorney over the final wording of an upcoming public apology.
"Sexual abuse is a serious sin. It devastates its victims physically, emotionally and spiritually," the archdiocese said in a statement. ". . . Such activity simply will not be tolerated in our church."
The church has been tarnished over the past two decades by a string of allegations of molestations by priests.
Experts said the church is increasingly leery about taking cases to trial after juries in recent years ordered large damage awards. In 1997, for example, a Dallas jury ordered the church to pay $119 million to 11 men who were allegedly molested as altar boys. An out-of-court settlement was later reached for $23 million.
Sylvia Demarest, who represented the plaintiffs in that trial, said the DiMaria case appears to be the biggest payout for a single victim and is also significant because it was agreed to before the case came to trial. She and other experts said the settlement breaks new ground because of the regulations it establishes for how the church deals with future cases.
Church officials continued to deny a central charge contained in the DiMaria lawsuit: That the dioceses were aware of sex allegations while Harris was principal of Mater Dei High School in Santa Ana, an Orange County social and athletic powerhouse, but still picked the priest in 1987 to head their new showcase Santa Margarita High School in southern Orange County.
It was not until 1994 that the Orange County diocese placed the principal on administrative leave and took the unusual step of prohibiting him from working as a priest. Harris has since started a business that builds low-income housing with the help of government funds. Some of Orange County's most prominent businessmen, including developer William Lyon and philanthropist Roger Kirwan, serve on his board of directors.
DiMaria's attorney, Katherine Freberg, said the size of the settlement should be viewed as an admission of guilt by the church, and that it represents an acknowledgment of its failure to take action as soon as it learned of the accusations.
The district attorney's office reviewed DiMaria's accusations last year but found insufficient evidence to file criminal charges against Harris.
Harris said in a statement that he did nothing wrong: "Monsignor Harris is extremely proud of his work with high school students and counts hundreds of them [as] close friends and supporters."
DiMaria, now 28, said in an interview that he hoped the settlement will send a message to the Catholic Church and lead to reforms in the way officials deal with molestation accusations.
"I just wanted to bring some recognition that these things happened and you can't just turn a blind eye to them," said DiMaria, who recently took the bar exam and plans to become a tax attorney. "The lawsuit was always about making a change and slowing it down or stopping it."
DiMaria said Harris molested him 1991, and that at first, he blamed himself. He said he spent five years battling depression and thoughts of suicide. He finally told his family five years after he claims Harris molested him. His parents immediately confronted church officials, who they said tried to cover it up.
"We thought we were doing the church a favor," said his mother, Diane DiMaria. "What we found out a long time later is that they knew much more [about Harris] and really didn't care. They were trying to keep us quiet about it."
The 11 changes to church procedures provided for in the settlement--which Ryan DiMaria's attorney dubbed "Ryan's Law"--include monitoring of schools and parishes, establishing a toll-free phone number and Web site for anonymous abuse complaints and forbidding priests to be alone in social settings with minors. Some of the rules are new, others reinforce existing regulations.
The church also agreed to allow an independent group to regularly interview departing students about possible sexual misconduct at St. John's Seminary in Camarillo, from which Harris graduated in 1972. Harris moved to Orange County from the seminary and became a teacher at Mater Dei in 1975, creating an easy rapport with students and parents. He took over as school principal in 1978. In 1987, he was asked by the church to become founding principal of Santa Margarita Catholic High School in Rancho Santa Margarita.
Harris' humor, intelligence and friendliness made him a well-respected figure in the Orange County Catholic and philanthropic communities. He was credited with raising nearly $26 million for the construction of Santa Margarita High School.
DiMaria claims Harris groped, fondled and sexually molested him twice, according to the lawsuit. He contends that it occurred 11 years after another teen lodged a similar complaint about Harris to G. Patrick Ziemann, then a priest in Los Angeles. Ziemann would later be promoted to Bishop of Santa Rosa, a post he resigned in July 1999 after disclosure of his affair with another priest. The diocese later paid that priest $535,000. Ziemann had been Harris' spiritual advisor at St. John's Seminary.
Besides DiMaria, four other people are to receive public apologies from the church: David A. Price, who claimed that Harris molested him at Mater Dei between 1979 and 1983; Lenora Colice, on behalf of her son, the late Vincent Colice, who said he was molested from 1977 to 1979 while a Mater Dei student; former Mater Dei student Mark Curran, who alleged Harris molested him in 1979; and Larry Raheb, who claimed he was molested while seeking spiritual counseling from Harris in 1979.
The four other accusers were not plaintiffs in the lawsuit, but DiMaria's attorneys cited their allegations as evidence. None of the others will receive financial compensation, and none of their allegations resulted in criminal charges or civil judgments against Harris, who denies any wrongdoing.
Diocesan officials insist they first became aware of claims against Harris in November 1993. At that time, Lenora Colice wrote a letter to Harris, with a copy to the Diocese of Orange, claiming that her son had been molested by Harris more than a decade earlier. She said her son told her about it on his deathbed a week earlier, while in the final stages of AIDS, which he contracted in later years and did not attribute to any relationship with Harris.
"I will never ever forget or forgive what you did to my son," Colice wrote to Harris.
Harris wrote back to Lenora Colice, saying, "It may not be of any consolation, but I am very sorry."
DiMaria's attorneys later used the letter as evidence of Harris' guilt.
But Harris' attorney has maintained in previous interviews that his letter showed only sympathy, and was not an admission of guilt.
Harris stepped down as principal of Santa Margarita High School in October 1994, citing stress. About 350 parents and students held a rally for him at a park near the school.
Weeks later, Harris spent four days at St. Luke's Institute in Maryland, the Catholic Church's medical treatment center for troubled priests. Church doctors recommended that he be admitted for in-patient treatment and have no unsupervised contact with minors, according to court records.
Doctors offered a psychiatric diagnosis, records show, finding that Harris was sexually attracted to adolescent boys.
"Our clinical team believes that there is substance to the allegations," the institute report said. "It has been our experience that in many cases like these, the allegations that have surfaced are only a few of the actual incidents of abuse that have occurred." The church unsuccessfully fought all the way to the California Supreme Court in an effort to keep the report confidential.
Within days of the evaluation, a Diocese of Orange spokesman, Msgr. Lawrence Baird, defended Harris to newspaper reporters and described him as "an icon to the priesthood."
Despite the publicity, Harris didn't withdraw from the tightknit community that always had showered him with love and respect. He continued to officiate at weddings and funerals, and wore a special pass that allowed him into the infield at Santa Margarita football games.
Msgr. John Urell, who investigated DiMaria's initial complaint against Harris for the Orange County diocese, sent Harris two cordial letters in 1996 and 1997 urging him to stop acting and appearing in public as a priest.
Harris eventually visited the school less frequently and set his sights on new goals. He earned a doctorate in education from Pepperdine University in Malibu. Using his connections in the Orange County philanthropic community, he encouraged several wealthy benefactors to serve on the board of directors of his new venture to buy and operate low-income mobile-home parks.
Harris incorporated a series of nonprofit organizations, using the name Caritas, the Catholic Church's international social-service organization. In the next three years, Harris obtained government financing to buy mobile-home parks in Brea, Lancaster, Vista and Yucaipa.
According to documents filed for 1999, the corporations had combined assets of $33.6 million, financed by $36.4 million in long-term municipal bonds and notes. Harris reported receiving a salary of $91,000 plus expenses in 1998, the most recent year on file.
Over the past decade, Catholic officials from the Vatican on down have said they've taken important steps to prevent molestation. But some scholars, victims' groups and plaintiffs' attorneys said the church still has much work to do.
"We're way short in purging the institution of the dimension of denial," said Jeffrey Anderson, a Minnesota attorney who has represented more than 500 accusers. "This is about institutional failure, not an individual straying from his vows."
Santa Ana -- A man who accused Catholic leaders of ignoring molestation charges against a once-popular priest has settled a lawsuit requiring the Orange and Los Angeles dioceses to change policies dealing with sexual assaults, it was announced Tuesday.
As part of the settlement to a 1997 lawsuit filed by Ryan DiMaria, his attorney said the Diocese of Orange and the Los Angeles Archdiocese agreed to pay $5.2 million, adopt a code of conduct and create a victim assistance program for youths who say they have been molested.
Terms of the Aug. 1 settlement, which DiMaria's lawyer labeled "Ryan's Laws," is believed to be the largest publicly disclosed priest-molestation settlement. DiMaria alleged he was molested by an Orange County priest when he was 17. The mother of another alleged victim of the same priest reported the alleged abuse in 1993 to a Los Angeles Archdiocese priest.
"I know first hand the feelings of the extreme pain and shame that others must feel from molestation," DiMaria, now 28, said at a news conference. "It frustrates me it's taken 20 to 30 years for something to be done."
Superior Court Judge James Gray ordered the dioceses to issue public apologies to DiMaria and four other teen-age boys who claimed they were molested by Orange County Monsignor Michael Harris. The judge also said he would oversee the terms of the settlement to ensure they were enacted.
Diocese of Orange Bishop Tod D. Brown said details of the apologies were being worked out.
"Although Michael Harris continues to deny any wrongdoing, the Diocese of Orange has grave doubts about his innocence in these matters, taking into consideration the number of complaints made against him, the similarity of those complaints and the apparent sincerity of the persons making these statements," Brown said.
Nicknamed "Father Hollywood" in the Catholic community because of his charisma and good looks, Harris agreed as part of the settlement to apply to the Vatican to be removed from the priesthood.
But in a written statement, Harris, 56, denied wrongdoing. He has never been charged with a crime and separately settled a lawsuit with DiMaria.
"Monsignor Harris has always and continues to deny Mr. DiMaria's allegations. Unfortunately, due to the diocese refusing to defend Monsignor Harris, and his lack of funds in which to mount a defense, he could not defend the matter through trial," Harris' attorney Mike Trotter said in a written statement. "The diocese resolved the case for its own business reason without the acquiescence or consent of Monsignor Harris or his attorneys."
The settlement in DiMaria's suit against the dioceses calls for a toll-free 800 number and the creation of a Web site for reporting molestation, as well as for educational pamphlets to be distributed to Catholic churches and schools. It also requires that priests promise not to molest.
DiMaria's attorney, Katherine Freberg, said the agreement is unprecedented, but church officials in both dioceses say they already have many of the policies in place.
Tod M. Tamberg, a spokesman for the Los Angeles Archdiocese, which encompasses Los Angeles, Ventura and Santa Barbara counties, said many of the policies in the settlement are in the "Priests Policies and Guidelines" handbook, which is handed out to every priest of the archdiocese.
Tamberg said other points in the settlement, including the creation and distribution of the informational handbook for priests and parishioners, "It's Never Okay; Ministry Never Includes Sex," were under development.
DiMaria, a former Santa Margarita Catholic High School student, sued because he claimed the dioceses turned their backs on the alleged "predatory" behavior of Harris, who allegedly targeted boys and young men in need of spiritual counseling.
Harris raised most of the money to open Santa Margarita, in Rancho Santa Margarita, in 1987, and was its principal until 1994.
At Tuesday's news conference, DiMaria said he was mailing a copy of the settlement agreement to every Catholic diocese in the country and is asking them to implement the policies.
He was joined by three others, all former students, who claimed to have been victims of molestation by Harris dating back to the 1970s and who came forward only recently.
"You have to understand what a 13-year-old boy was going through.
I did not have the strength of a 36-year-old man to deal with this,"
said Michael Curran, who alleges he was molested in 1980 when Harris was
a principal at Mater Dei High School in Santa Ana.
By Steve Lopez
You might say this has not been a great week for the Catholic Church in Southern California.
First we had the $5.2-million settlement of a sex scandal involving an Orange County priest and several young males, which brings to mind two familiar questions:
What did church leaders know, and when did they know it?
Hard to say. Especially since, by sheer coincidence, I'm sure, the church decided to settle the case just before Cardinal Roger Mahony of the Los Angeles Archdiocese was to be deposed. While searching for answers, I came across a letter dated Aug. 14 from a lawyer representing the Los Angeles Archdiocese.
The letter was sent to a former priest and expert witness in the Orange County case, taking him to task for misstating the number of sexual misconduct cases in the Los Angeles Archdiocese.
In fact, attorney John P. McNicholas wrote, "There were approximately 50 cases of claimed sexual misbehavior in the archdiocese over the past five years. Of these cases, only six involved minors. Two of the six were current; four were adults complaining of past misconduct."
What a relief.
The L.A. Archdiocese is only averaging 10 allegations of sexual misconduct a year.
And "only six" of the 50 involve minors.
Who knows? Maybe six allegations of claimed sexual misbehavior involving minors is a pretty good five-year run for the archdiocese.
If so, I can understand why Cardinal Mahony might have wanted to avoid answering questions. But I'm going to ask them anyway.
What exactly are the allegations McNicholas is referring to, who are the accused, and is everything being done to make sure more minors are not assaulted?
Let me be even more blunt.
Are more children being molested as we speak?
I'd like to share the answers with you, but McNicholas is out of the country, and the archdiocese did not return my call. I think I must be on some kind of list over there.
The reason I wonder if church officials are doing everything in their power to prevent more abuse is because that's not exactly what happened in Orange County.
Diocese officials say it wasn't until 1993 that they were aware of sex allegations against Msgr. Michael A. Harris, former principal of Mater Dei High in Santa Ana and Santa Margarita High in southern Orange County.
But that's utterly impossible, says attorney Katherine Freberg, who represented
Ryan DiMaria in the $5.2-million case. Freberg says the church knew Harris
was treated in 1972 for "sexual conflicts," and she says it
knew about a molestation charge in 1980.
It's a tangled web, isn't it?
"Our information is that Cardinal Mahony and Bishop Ziemann were friends," says Freberg, who claims Mahony's lawyers "fought tooth and nail" to prevent having Mahony deposed. "Beyond that, I'm not going to speculate" as to what Mahony might have known about allegations against Harris, Freberg says.
In 1993, a former student of Harris died of AIDS. On his deathbed, he told his mother he had been molested by Harris back in the 1970s. But even after she notified the diocese, it took six months before Harris stepped down as principal of Santa Margarita and was sent away to a clinic in Maryland for a psychiatric evaluation.
Within days after doctors made the startling diagnosis that Harris seemed to be attracted to adolescent boys, a Diocese of Orange spokesman painted a different picture for the public, calling him "an icon to the priesthood."
Harris still maintains his innocence. But he became too much of a PR problem for the diocese, which now expresses "grave doubts" about his innocence and intends to have him defrocked.
"If Mahony were the CEO of an equally large corporation, he'd have been asked to resign for his handling of this case," says A.W. Richard Sipe, the former priest who received the letter in which the diocese admitted to 50 claims of sexual misbehavior.
Sipe is the author of "Bless Me Father for I Have Sinned," an examination of sex and cover-up in the priesthood. In the Orange County case, he helped draft a new diocesan policy on sex abuse allegations, and the church also agreed to create an assistance program for youths who claim they've been molested.
But will it make a difference?
Sipe is half-optimistic, half-realistic. Nationally, he says, the church is like the tobacco industry. "A trail of secrecy and deception" reaches into the upper echelons, and the general strategy is "massive denial" until the truth is as plain as the cross above the altar.
But by then even good priests are tainted by the stain of yet another
scandal in the church, the victims are forced to carry the burden of the
ultimate betrayal, and you wonder how the men in robes can sleep at night.
By William Lobdell
Cardinal Roger M. Mahony can brag that his archdiocese has implemented the toughest rules in the nation against priests who molest children. But that boast was made possible only because one of the church's stubborn accusers insisted last December that the new policy be part of his record $5.2-million settlement.
Last week in Rome, America's cardinals and Vatican officials grappled with exactly how unforgiving a sexual abuse policy should be: Should they adopt a "zero-tolerance" stance for priests with a decades-old molestation incident? They ended their two-day conference by issuing only a generally worded statement on sexual abuse, leaving the most difficult decisions to the nation's bishops when they meet in June.
The Los Angeles archdiocese settled those matters months ago. Mahony, along with Bishop of Orange Tod D. Brown, enacted a new set of rules, including a "one-strike" provision that has triggered the recent dismissal of at least a dozen priests in both dioceses. Some of those priests had a single incident of misbehavior in their distant past.
The new rules also include an independent advocate who is not a priest or diocesan employee for alleged victims, an 800 number for anonymous complaints and a mandatory program on abuse prevention at parochial schools.
In all, 11 changes were made to the dioceses' policies in December as part of a settlement with abuse victim Ryan DiMaria. The settlement imposed a state-of-the-art sexual-abuse policy on Mahony and Brown a full month before the church's sex scandal broke in Boston.
The beefed-up rules, whose implementation was overseen by Orange County Superior Court Judge James P. Gray, gave the prelates the look of prophets.
Mahony and Brown rarely refer to the legal settlement that brought about the new rules, though they frequently have highlighted the policy with pride in media reports, letters to parishioners and on Web sites.
For instance, in March, the Los Angeles archdiocese distributed to parishioners a brochure called "Respecting the Boundaries: Keeping Ministerial Relationships Healthy and Holy." Archdiocese spokesman Tod Tamberg said at the time that the cardinal decided to hand out the information because of the surge of attention to priest sex scandals that erupted in January with the criminal trial of a Boston cleric accused of molesting 130 children.
"Cardinal Mahony thought ... it was important for him to reiterate to the Catholic faithful that we have comprehensive policies on sex abuse, that we follow them carefully and review them regularly," Tamberg said.
The informational campaign was one of the measures imposed by the settlement.
"Cardinal Mahony is giving this perception that he did this on his own," said Katherine K. Freberg, one of DiMaria's attorneys.
Mahony flatly denied Friday that he may have been forced into the new policies by lawsuits, saying that he had been developing and implementing the procedures well before the Dec. 4 settlement.
Some Measures Already in Place
Maria Schinderle, director of human resources for the Orange diocese, said the settlement prompted some changes, but said it was unfair to say that the settlement was responsible for 11 innovations in the way the church handled molestation allegations. She said some of the measures already were in place and others were on the drawing board.
"That's why it didn't take long to implement it," she said.
DiMaria's attorneys cite the timing: After a four-year legal battle, the dioceses agreed to the changes only weeks before a potentially costly and embarrassing jury trial.
DiMaria, a recent law school graduate, claimed that he had been abused as a teenager by the principal at his Catholic high school. Msgr. Michael Harris, a popular Orange County clergyman who was nicknamed "Father Hollywood," has denied the charges.
Four other alleged victims, not parties to DiMaria's lawsuit, also accused Harris of similar misconduct. The Los Angeles archdiocese was named in the suit because DiMaria contended that the archdiocese knew of another victim's allegations against Harris, dating back to the 1970s, but did nothing about them. The archdiocese has denied prior knowledge.
DiMaria, now in his late 20s, has declined to give media interviews since the settlement, but his attorneys said his primary goal in suing the dioceses was to fix a broken system that protected priests and scorned victims like himself.
Though DiMaria received the highest known settlement for a single U.S. victim of priest abuse, "the truth is, our client took less money to get this done" by electing not to go to trial, where changes in church policy would not have been at issue, said John Manly, DiMaria's other attorney.
Last August, Judge Gray called a settlement conference where he told both parties that the revelations that had surfaced during the lawsuit had sickened him. He said they "made my skin crawl" and left him "crying inside."
"This case will live with me as long as I'm thinking and breathing," he said later in court.
Gray told the parties that he wanted, as DiMaria had requested, new guidelines added to the church's sexual abuse policy--and he wanted them "in concrete" before any discussion of financial compensation.
Gray, who declined to be interviewed for this story, asked DiMaria, his parents and his attorneys to come up with some initial suggestions.
Manly, a Navy reservist, lifted many of the ideas, including the anonymous 800 number and zero-tolerance concept, from the Navy's sexual harassment policy developed after the Tailhook scandal.
The experiences of other victims generated other provisions, such as independent exit interviews of students quitting St. John's Seminary in Camarillo, where most Southern California priests are trained.
Attorney Freberg even searched Scripture to back the argument for a "zero tolerance" policy for priests who molest minors. She found it in Luke's Gospel: "It would be better for him to be thrown into the sea with a millstone tied around his neck than for him to cause one of these little ones to sin."
"The operative word is one," she said.
The two dioceses agreed to the provisions, though there was some haggling over the specifics.
Church officials said they gladly instituted the changes since they only enhanced existing policies or jump-started additions already under discussion.
The hotline, for example, "was part of our plan already," Mahony said. "We had already proposed the hotline before that settlement agreement came out."
Mahony said his zero-tolerance policy toward clerics who abuse children was started in 1990. However, it was not until last December--shortly after the Dec. 4 settlement--that the archdiocese did a thorough review of all past allegations.
That turned up seven cases that occurred before 1997. As a result, in January several priests in the Los Angeles Archdiocese were told to leave--if they hadn't already retired.
Freberg and other critics noted that by signing the settlement, the dioceses faced financial responsibility if a priest with a known background of molestation remained in the diocese and went on to abuse a minor.
"I couldn't imagine the civil liability that would come down on them," Freberg said. "The sky's the limit."
Times staff writer Beth Shuster contributed to this report.
By John Manly
A few weeks ago, the Los Angeles and Orange County dioceses of the Catholic Church paid $5.2 million to settle a lawsuit alleging that a priest had molested a teenage boy.
Msgr. Michael A. Harris, the defendant who publicly maintains his innocence, was no ordinary priest. He was one of the leading Roman Catholic educators in the United States. I met him in 1978 when I entered Mater Dei High School. Harris was the principal of Mater Dei. He was friendly and charismatic, well-liked by students and revered by parents.
We know that Harris' cheerful personality and distinguished reputation masked a dark secret that he and the church hid for years. Like most Catholics, I am extremely distressed by what seems to be an endless stream of these types of cases. As co-counsel to the victim in this case, I am outraged by the tactics employed by the church in an attempt to hide the truth from their parishioners and the public.
The pattern is simple. Many bishops in dioceses throughout the United States learn about these cases and try to hide them and protect the perpetrator through the various means available to the church. Perpetrators are routinely sent to "treatment" at church-run psychiatric facilities. They are then brought back into the ministry, typically in different parishes. Recently, the Diocese of Orange removed a parish priest in Dana Point and sent him to counseling. In such instances, the only proper response is removal from the priesthood. When sued, the U.S. bishops act more like the tobacco industry than like the successors to the apostles that they are supposed to be. A recent lawsuit against Cardinal Bernard Law of Boston charges that he failed to properly supervise a priest charged with child molestation. The church responded by blaming the victim.
Court documents filed by the church alleged that the victim's "negligence" contributed to the molestation. They ignored the fact that under Massachusetts law a child under 16 cannot consent to a sexual encounter. This blame-the-victim strategy has been repeatedly used by the church throughout the country.
Sometimes the church resorts to even more extreme methods. In a 1999 suit against the Archdiocese of Portland, the church countersued the victim. The strategy backfired. Twenty-five other alleged victims stepped forward, and the church settled all 25 suits. Responsibility for ending this intolerable pattern of abuse, cover-ups and further abuse lies directly at the feet of the U.S. bishops.
Bishops are, in effect, the CEOs of their dioceses and are responsible for dealing with misconduct by clergy under their charge. Unlike corporate CEOs, bishops have far-reaching powers akin to those of a military commander. They have the ability to order priests to undergo psychiatric treatment, send them into seclusion in a remote monastery or even to expel them from the church.
The leading national bishops organization, the National Conference of Catholic Bishops, has failed to adopt or implement the reforms necessary to protect children from sexual predators wearing clerical collars. It is time for the Catholic faithful to demand accountability and action from their bishops.
In most other organizations, be they civil, religious or military, when scandals of this sort erupt the leaders of the organizations are held responsible and resign or are relieved, even if they are not directly at fault. Catholics must demand the same level of accountability from their bishops and protest publicly if the bishops do not comply.
There is great peril to the church in ignoring these demands by parishioners. Ignoring sexual abuse hurts the church and taints many good priests with the stain of child molestation. Civil lawsuits will soon give way to aggressive criminal prosecutions if the church does not undertake reform. This is already happening abroad.
Our country may not be far behind. Sexual misconduct in the church has become a serious problem. It affects the credibility of the church's teachings, it affects the credibility of the church on moral issues and, most of all, it affects individual Catholics and their beliefs.
The only way the church can deal with this issue is to stop denying it, admit fault, minister to victims and expel perpetrators from the clergy.
John Manly, a Costa Mesa attorney, was co-counsel in the case of, DiMaria
vs. Roman Catholic Bishop of Orange
By Ron Russell
But among those abused by priests, Mahony's credibility ebbed a long time ago, and his recent pretensions as a friend of victims have done little to change that. In fact, most of his publicly announced ideas for dealing with the sex-abuse crisis, including those he unveiled amid much fanfare before jetting off to Rome along with other American cardinals to meet with the pope this month, weren't Mahony's at all. They had been forced on him, kicking and screaming, as it were, last August as conditions for settling a potentially explosive sex-abuse case involving the former principal of a prominent Catholic high school in Orange County, Monsignor Michael Harris. Barely a month before he would have been forced to testify at the Harris trial, Mahony authorized the Los Angeles Archdiocese to pay victim Ryan DiMaria $5.2 million -- the largest such settlement ever for a single victim in a Catholic sex-abuse case.
Mahony's lawyers had fought vigorously to keep him from having to testify, and had lost. As detailed earlier in New Times, Mahony already had become the highest American Catholic official to take the witness stand in a molestation case at the 1998 Stockton civil trial involving brothers James and Joh Howard, and had fared miserably. Lawyers for the brothers argued that Mahony, who was bishop of Stockton from 1980 to 1985, must have known that former priest Oliver O'Grady was a pedophile during the years Mahony shuffled him from parish to parish, even promoting him. The jury's record $24 million punitive judgment for the brothers (later reduced by a judge) was a repudiation of Mahony's claims at the trial that he didn't know about O'Grady. But the news media scarcely covered the Stockton story. That probably would not have been the case regarding DiMaria, who was a student at Santa Margarita Catholic High School in Rancho Santa Margarita in 1991, when the wildly popular and charismatic Harris is alleged to have molested him. Especially since DiMaria's lawyer was prepared to present evidence that a close Mahony protege and one of his top former lieutenants in the L.A. Archdiocese -- disgraced former Santa Rosa bishop G. Patrick Zieman -- had received reports that Harris was a child molester years earlier and had done nothing about them.
In retrospect, DiMaria, now 24 and a recent law school graduate, might have held out for even more. "It was never about the money," says his attorney, Katherine Freberg. "What Ryan wanted more than anything was to make a difference so that other kids might not have to suffer what Michael Harris did to him." On a muggy August morning, when he arrived at the Santa Ana chambers of superior court judge James P. Gray to face a phalanx of diocesan lawyers, DiMaria had tucked under his arm a list of demands that had nothing to do with dollar signs. They included a zero tolerance policy, a toll-free victim hotline and the distribution of materials about sex abuse to parishes and schools. Among others, they also included a commitment to conduct exit interviews to query graduating students about abuses they may have observed at St. John's Seminary College in Camarillo, whose most famous alumnus is Cardinal Mahony. A hotbed of priestly promiscuity, St. John's has stocked the parishes of Los Angeles and beyond with clerics for decades.
Perhaps relieved that DiMaria wasn't insisting on a larger sum (Freberg had been prepared to press for $100 million in damages if the case had gone before a jury) the archdiocese's lawyers agreed to a whopping 11 items on DiMaria's wish list. But amazingly, in the crushing aftermath of Boston and considering that his own track record in harboring pedo-priests was every bit as awful as that of Boston's much-maligned Cardinal Law, Mahony would eagerly ballyhoo the "reforms" as his own. And all the more so after the church leaders in Rome infuriated Catholics and non-Catholics alike by producing feeble recommendations that sounded more like "three strikes" than "zero tolerance," suggesting that perhaps only priests deemed to be "notorious" as "serial" sex offenders should be defrocked. In fact, while agreeing to them, the archdiocese has yet to divulge some of DiMaria's demands, and for understandable reasons. As a result of the settlement, all new priests in the L.A. Archdiocese and the Diocese of Orange must now essentially sign a contract (humiliating, to say the least) promising not to molest children. To address the familiar refrain of Catholic leaders claiming not to have known about a priest's child-molesting past, DiMaria even won a change in the way the archdiocese keeps its internal records. The archdiocese agreed to insert a "green page" in the personnel files of every priest about whom potentially incriminating material has been collected, signaling that such information is on file somewhere else.
However, he didn't get everything he wanted. Mahony had long ago set up an internal volunteer committee of mostly priests ostensibly to deal with sex-abuse allegations leveled at clergy. It is the same committee that in his headline-grabbing push recently the cardinal has promised to expand to include more lay people and perhaps even an abuse victim. But the archdiocese always has been secretive about the group. DiMaria, through Freberg, sought to find out what it does, and if DiMaria could share his experience as an abuse victim with its members. The request went nowhere, with a lawyer for Mahony insisting that the members preferred to remain anonymous. An episode during the recent saga may suggest why. Sources tell New Times that of the two or three lay members of the committee, one is Richard Byrne, a retired presiding Los Angeles superior court judge. In March, some of Mahony's (now infamous) hacked e-mails were leaked to a radio station, which shared them with the L.A. Times. It was Byrne, these sources say, who, at the request of lawyers for the archdiocese, helped facilitate the extraordinary late-night hearing at which Mahony's lawyers argued unsuccessfully to prevent the e-mails from being published. In other words, the archdiocese turned to a church confidante, ostensibly entrusted with helping abuse victims, to keep the embarrassing e-mails -- which, indeed, helped victims by exposing Mahony's duplicity in trying to keep a lid on the scandal -- from getting out to the press.
"Amazing" is how Freberg describes her young client's resoluteness and the obvious eagerness of Mahony -- who declined to be interviewed for this article -- to prevent the Harris case from coming to trial. It is also how she describes her reaction upon reading daily newspaper accounts of Mahony's multi-point plan for dealing with priestly sex abuse. His selling zero tolerance as his own would be crass enough if all he had done was lift it from the DiMaria settlement. But even the disdained Law in Boston had beaten Mahony to the punch, trotting out his version of zero tolerance back in January, a few days before the notorious Geoghan went on trial. During his recent interview-a-minute barnstorming of the circuslike press gallery assembled at the Vatican, Mahony spoke repeatedly of his zero tolerance policy, tooting his horn as a reformer even as he was widely rumored to be the "anonymous cardinal" plotting to force the beleaguered Law to resign. He has continued the horn-tooting since his return from Rome during carefully controlled sessions with selected (and fawning) mainstream media. As she has observed Mahony's self-promotion, Freberg says, she has had to laugh. "The public needs to know that Cardinal Mahony didn't do any of this voluntarily," she says. "The perception that he's doing what he's doing for the sake of victims is a fallacy. If not, what took him so long?"
Yet Mahony only saw fit to force Sutphin to move out of the cathedral residence and into retirement earlier this year after finally getting around to purging a few priests as the result of the DiMaria settlement agreement.
Interestingly, the lawyer who filed the recketeering lawsuit this week is Jeff Anderson of St. Paul, Minnesota, who helped discredit Mahony on the witness stand in Stockton while representing James and Joh Howard. He is also the lawyer for Baker's West Hollywood accuser. Even as this article was going to press, Anderson was preparing to serve Mahony in connection with another lawsuit on behalf of eight abuse victims in Ventura County, who say the archdiocese allowed a priest who abused them there to flee to Mexico recently without turning him over to police. "Roger Mahony has continued a policy of duplicity and deception and, in my opinion, what he has done makes what [Cardinal] Law in Boston is accused of doing pale by comparison," he maintains. "Until Mahony resigns, there won't be any accountability in the Los Angeles Archdiocese, and there won't be any change."
The need for Mahony's abrupt and expensive settlement of the Harris case -- which kept his unflattering association with Zieman from the glare of a civil trial -- might never have arisen if not for the deathbed wishes of a former Catholic youth camp volunteer. As he lay dying of AIDS on Thanksgiving of 1993, Vince Colice of Stanton, California, gave his mother permission to go public with a secret he had told her two years earlier: that Monsignor Harris had sexually assaulted him in the late 1970s while he was a student and Harris a teacher at Mater Dei High School in Santa Ana. After burying her son, Lenora Colice wrote to Harris, by then the principal at Santa Margarita, to accuse him. A week later, he wrote back: "Through counseling and other resources I have endeavored to work through many things...It may not be any consolation, but I am very sorry." The letter later became part of the court record in Ryan DiMaria's lawsuit.Harris resigned as Santa Margarita's principal in February 1994, citing "stress." Two days later, the Diocese of Orange flew him to St. Luke Institute in Maryland, one of the few places in North America where Catholic priests are treated for sexual disorders, for psychosexual treatment. Not long afterward, the insurance carrier for the diocese informed church officials that it would not cover legal costs related to Harris' conduct retroactive to December 1993, when the diocese had told the insurer about Lenora Colice's letter. The diocese then placed Harris on "inactive leave" as a priest. In the wake of Vince Colice's accusations from the grave, three men came forward to publicly accuse Harris of molesting them. But little came of the allegations. In each case, the alleged offenses occurred so long ago that statutes of limitation had expired. Only one of the men, David Price, bothered to file a lawsuit, and it was quickly dismissed.
But DiMaria's case was different, and for a reason that would come to plague Mahony. It was in 1997 that DiMaria, then 20, worked up the nerve to go public with his allegations against Harris. In 1991, while a sophomore at Santa Margarita, DiMaria had been depressed over a friend's suicide, and his parents asked Harris to counsel their son to help him deal with his grief. Harris took him out for dinner and a performance of The Phantom of the Opera in Los Angeles, and then brought him back to the priest's house to spend the night. DiMaria says Harris invited him to share his bed, but he refused, choosing to sleep on a sofa in another room. The next morning, DiMaria says, Harris repeatedly assaulted him. DiMaria spent the next six years battling depression and thoughts of suicide until he finally confided to his parents what had happened. By then, the Orange County district attorney's office had declined to prosecute, citing the time that had elapsed. DiMaria then turned to Freberg, the attorney, who filed the lawsuit on his behalf.
The Diocese of Orange had the chance to settle the DiMaria case early for $1 million, but declined. It was a costly mistake. While engaged in a protracted (and ultimately successful) struggle to force the diocese to turn over Harris' highly damaging medical records from St. Luke, Freberg made an unexpected discovery that pointed to a coverup of Harris' abusive behavior -- not only within the Diocese of Orange, but within the L.A. Archdiocese. In fact, there was a smoking gun pointed directly at Zieman, the longtime Mahony protege and a member of the cardinal's inner circle of clerics.
Zieman and Mahony might have seemed unlikely friends. Zieman was from an old-money Pasadena family, the grandson of lawyer-writer-orator Joseph Scott, a prominent Republican and one of the most influential Catholic laymen in the United States during the first half of the 20th century. (A statue of Scott adorns the grounds of the L.A. County Court House downtown.) Mahony is the adopted son of a San Fernando Valley electrician turned chicken rancher. But they were both bright, gregarious and, says one veteran priest who knows them, "they both were going places." In Zieman's case, Mahony would see to that. Zieman had served as pastor in a string of parishes before Mahony assumed control of the archdiocese. Mahony appointed him as vice rector and dean of students at Our Lady Queen of Angels Seminary in the San Fernando Valley and ultimately as an auxiliary bishop. When the bishop's position became vacant at Santa Rosa in 1992, Mahony was instrumental in persuading the Vatican to appoint Zieman to the post. The move turned out badly. Financial mismanagement during his tenure at Santa Rosa plunged the diocese to near bankruptcy.
But it was a sex scandal that did Zieman in. After a young priest from Costa Rica whom Zieman rapidly promoted to pastor was accused of financial irregularities at a church in Ukiah, Zieman began extorting the priest for sex, all the while pretending to help him out of his difficulties. According to police records, Father Jorge Hume Salas complained that the bishop forced him to wear a beeper and would beckon him for sex at all hours. After Zieman attempted to send him back to Costa Rica against his wishes, while continuing to exploit him sexually, Salas resorted to wearing a hidden microphone and captured several lurid conversations in which Zieman is heard apologizing for forcing the priest to have sex with him. Although the priest turned the tapes over to police, the district attorney's office declined to prosecute. But when Salas filed a lawsuit against Zieman in 1999 containing the allegations of the bishop's sexual extortion, Zieman hastily stepped down at Santa Rosa. To diminish the fallout, and keep the worst aspects of the seedy affair from coming out during a trial, the diocese settled the suit for a rumored $700,000. But as with pedophile priests with whom punishment seems relative, Zieman remains a bishop. He is assigned to the Holy Trinity Monastery outside Tucson, Arizona, where he works with young prospective seminarians and presides over mass occasionally. Just how a disgraced church leader can skate from a humiliating departure from his post in Northern California and, without being censured, land a plum assignment in the quietude of the Arizona desert speaks volumes about the Catholic clergy's ability to police itself. Says one veteran Los Angeles priest, "I could never prove it, but you can bet Roger [Mahony] had something to do with that."
Had Mahony not settled the DiMaria case, one thing was certain: A lot of unpleasant questions related to his friend in the Arizona desert were going to come up at trial. In a written declaration given in support of Price, whose allegations against Monsignor Harris had been thrown out of court because they were too old to prosecute, a former student at St. John's Seminary had provided a startling piece of information. The student, Richard Nason, had been friends with Vince Colice. In 1979, Nason became alarmed after one of his instructors at St. John's, a priest, persisted in making sexual advances toward him. After Nason confided the information to Colice, who was a senior at Mater Dei at the time, Colice had his own abuse story to tell, revealing that he was being molested by Harris. In May 1980, Nason made an appointment with his spiritual adviser -- who happened to be G. Patrick Zieman -- intent on telling all.
Nason didn't confine his discussion with Zieman to his own problem. He told Zieman all about the abuse suffered by Colice at the hands of Harris. Nason says Zieman appeared "deeply troubled" and assured him that he would take action to stop it. Disillusioned with the prospect of becoming a priest, Nason left the seminary a short time later. As he would learn years later, Zieman did nothing with respect to Harris' alleged abuse of his friend. Although Nason had no way of knowing it, Zieman and Harris were longtime buddies, having attended St. John's together years earlier. Zieman had taught religion at Mater Dei while Harris was there. And as court records show, they continued to socialize long after Nason turned to Zieman hoping to blow the whistle on Harris. An Orange County priest says Harris even invited Zieman to be the guest speaker at a special parents' night program at Santa Margarita in the early 1990s.
After learning of Nason's 1980 revelations to Zieman about Harris' alleged molestation of Colice, Freberg embarked on a novel approach in pursuing client DiMaria's interests. The Diocese of Orange was carved out of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles in 1976 as a separate entity. But under canon law (the broad body of policies promulgated by the Vatican) the L.A. archdiocese, as a "metropolitan see," retains ecclesiastical superiority over the "suffragan" Diocese of Orange. It also remains financially susceptible for liabilities emanating from Orange in any matter in which the archdiocese may be substantively linked. In negligently failing to act on the allegations presented to him about Harris' conduct, Zieman provided just such a link. Sensing the gravity of the situation, lawyers for the archdiocese argued (unsuccessfully) that canon law shouldn't be applied in the DiMaria case. In March of last year, Freberg flew to Arizona to depose Zieman.
If the specter of putting Zieman on the witness stand in a trial that was bound to attract headlines seemed unsavory to Mahony and the archdiocese, Freberg had an even more unpleasant prospect in store. In early July, she served notice that she also wanted to depose the cardinal. Mahony's lawyers responded immediately that they had no intention of producing him without a fight. It was a fight the archdiocese lost. In late July, a superior court judge ordered Mahony to make himself available to be deposed. With a deposition looming, not to mention the trial scheduled for early that September, the cardinal seemed headed for a courtroom experience every bit as bruising as his 1998 testimony in the Stockton trial. Only this time, the media would be paying attention.
After four years of hard-nosed litigation, Mahony threw in the towel.
A settlement conference was scheduled for August 1, giving the two sides
a last formal pretrial chance to come to terms. Freberg arrived in Judge
Gray's chambers that day "without an inkling" that the session
would be anything but perfunctory. To her amazement, within a few hours
Mahony's legal eagles agreed to fork over $5.2 million to her client.
And as part of the settlement, which was formalized that December, they
also acquiesced to the litany of reforms advanced personally by young
Ryan DiMaria and mediated by the judge. From a sex-abuse victim's mouth
to the pope's ear, the settlement terms would be heard around the world,
even if Mahony filched them as his own.
By William Lobdell and Jean O. Pasco
It was the grand opening of Orange County's new Catholic high school, and Msgr. Michael A. Harris proudly surveyed the hundreds of students and parents who sat before him.
To a roar of applause from the audience, he ripped open his black clerical shirt to reveal a Superman logo. The "S" stood for Santa Margarita High. Harris was the guiding force behind the new school and its first principal.
The superhero insignia also spoke to the image Harris projected, a mix of celebrity and saintliness, and to the feelings of reverence he inspired in Southern California's Catholic community. Known as "Father Hollywood" for his good looks and charm, he raised millions for the church and formed tight friendships with judges, developers, philanthropists and other members of Orange County's elite.
[Photo Captions - Michael Harris, above in a 1991 photograph, was placed on "inactive leave" by the Diocese of Orange in 1994. He has since started a new career as a developer of low-income housing. Photographer: Ken Hively/Los Angeles Times. Michael Harris helped raise $26 million to build Santa Margarita High, above, and served as the school's founding principal. Photographer: Kevin Casey/Los Angeles Times]
That was one side of Michael Harris. The other was revealed to psychologists and doctors who evaluated him years later, after a former student accused him of molestation. Harris confided to the doctors that he was afraid to pray alone, afraid of what thoughts would surface when he found himself at one with God.
"Michael is not able to reconcile the good persona that he shows to the world with the self-loathing and conflict he feels within," according to a church-ordered evaluation.
In 1994, seven years after that joyous grand opening, Harris was eased out as principal of Santa Margarita and quietly barred from wearing the collar. Over the next few years, four more former students would accuse him of molestation.
In August, the Roman Catholic Church paid $5.2 million to one of those men. It is believed to be the largest publicly disclosed payment the church has ever made to an individual victim of sexual abuse. Though Harris denied wrongdoing, the Diocese of Orange issued a public apology to all five of his accusers and agreed to a set of measures designed to deter future abuses and assist victims.
Harris' days as a priest are over, but his aura has endured. His hold on his admirers remains strong. Despite his public disgrace, many continue to believe in him. Some still have the souvenir Superman shirts he handed out at that opening assembly 15 years ago.
With help from wealthy supporters, Harris has started a new career--as a developer of low-income housing. Through nonprofit organizations he established under the name Caritas--Latin for charity or love--he purchased mobile-home parks in Orange County. He collects government subsidies for renting the units to low-income people. His nonprofits paid Harris $91,000 in 1998, the most recent year for which figures are available.
Members of the Caritas boards include two prominent home builders, a retired judge and philanthropist Roger Kirwan, chairman of the Orange County Performing Arts Center.
"I believe in him until proven otherwise," said Dr. Burr McKeehan, a board member and longtime friend. "We're all talking about the bad he's supposedly done. The good he's done is amazing. Without him, that school [Santa Margarita] would never be there."
Childhood Pain From 'a Lack of Nurturance'
Harris was raised in Brea, an old oil town on the northern tip of Orange County that became a bedroom community of tract houses and strip malls.
Harris declined to be interviewed for this story. Details of his boyhood appear in a report by doctors at St. Luke's Institute in Maryland, a treatment center for troubled priests where Harris was evaluated for five days in 1994. The report became part of the public record in a lawsuit filed by one of his accusers, Ryan DiMaria. This is the case that was settled in August.
Harris told therapists at St. Luke's that his was a difficult childhood: His mother was an alcoholic who drank herself to death. His father worked several jobs and was rarely at home.
The report said that Harris' teenage years were marked by "a lack of nurturance and comfort and [by] emotional isolation."
"At later points in his life," the doctors wrote, "some of Michael's actions appear to be directed at receiving the comfort that he did not receive as a child."
Harris attended Orange County's leading Catholic school, Mater Dei High School in Santa Ana. He was involved in music, the student council and theater. Harris played the lead in the comedy "The Worm Will Squirm." His character was a buffoonish high school principal. He went on to St. John's Seminary in Camarillo, earning undergraduate and graduate degrees.
Classmates said Harris was influenced by the priests at Mater Dei and emerged quickly as a leader.
"Like many of us, he had a priest or two in his background who had encouraged him," said Father Theodore Olson, a classmate who is now pastor of St. Angela Merici Church in Brea. "And he found the idea of service very attractive and thought it would be a good use of his talents."
Finding His Calling as High School Teacher
Ordained in 1972, Harris served as a parish associate pastor in Monrovia until he found his passion: teaching high school. Shortly thereafter, he began weekly sessions with a psychiatrist for "anxiety and sexual conflicts," court records show. The therapy went on for nine months.
He taught at St. Pius X High School in Downey before landing a job at his alma mater, Mater Dei, in 1975. There, he quickly gained notice as a motivating teacher who showed classic films in class to illustrate religious concepts. He was promoted to vice principal and then principal in 1978.
Mater Dei was the largest Catholic high school on the West Coast. It was also an athletic powerhouse, producing championship football and basketball teams. For prominent Catholic families, Mater Dei was the pick of the parochial schools.
As principal, Harris came in contact with many of Orange County's top developers, lawyers and businessmen. He made a strong impression on many of them.
By all accounts, he loved the society spotlight. Each year, he modeled in a charity fashion show, even wearing motorcycle leathers as one of "Heaven's Angels."
Paul Salata, a former professional football player and retired Newport Beach businessman, said he thought of Harris as "just one of the boys," a guy who could talk about last night's game or greet friends with gentle humor.
"I'd say, 'Hi there, Rev, I hope you won't hold it against me that I'm not Catholic,' " said Salata, a member of the Greek Orthodox Church. "He'd say, 'Don't worry. I'm an equal-opportunity pastor.' He could have taken off the collar and done anything."
Jim Schmitt, a retired administrative judge who lives in San Clemente, met Harris in the early 1980s at an orientation meeting for potential Mater Dei students and parents.
Harris stood at center court in the Mater Dei gym, addressing the packed crowd. As he talked, he moved from free-throw line to free-throw line to get as close as possible to the audience in the bleachers.
"You felt like he was talking to you," Schmitt said. "I came home that night and thought, 'My, I want [my son] Charlie to go there.' "
During his son's four years at the school--and for years after as Mater Dei's basketball announcer--Schmitt watched Harris with admiration. When students misbehaved at football games, Harris, standing on the dirt track in front of the cheerleaders, turned toward the stands and hooked his thumbs on his belt.
"He silenced the whole student body with just a look," Schmitt said. "It was like, 'What are you doing? I'm amazed that you kids would be so unruly and unpleasant. I'm here and I disapprove.'
"He didn't have to get on the microphone. That was the kind of respect he had."
Harris frequently invited students--a mix of athletes, drama club members and kids in the band--over to his house for pizza, sodas and popcorn, and movies, games and television.
"You know how some people have library shelves filled with books?" said Mike Carpenter, a 1992 graduate of Santa Margarita who remains a Harris admirer. "Monsignor had movies, thousands of movies."
Schmitt said he and scores of other parents worked closely with Harris for years and never saw any behavior that made them suspicious.
The principal seemed to be everywhere, attending almost all school sports events and extracurricular activities. He later told doctors that he worked 14 to 15 hours a day, seven days a week. He often stood at the entrance of the school gym or theater, greeting parents and boosters. He gave giant bear hugs to nearly every student he met. His office door was always wide open for students who wanted to talk.
"To a man or woman, we all thought Mike Harris was as great as you're going to get," Schmitt said. "He was a God-like presence on campus."
The Natural Choice as New School's Principal
When prominent Catholics, in the mid-1980s, sought to build a new high school in fast-growing south Orange County, Harris was an easy pick for founding principal. He was one of the diocese's most prominent priests, with strong ties to business leaders and philanthropists. Harris would help raise $26 million to build Santa Margarita High.
Steve Hopkins, a real estate developer, attended a breakfast at the exclusive Pacific Club in Newport Beach, where business leaders were pitched on the new Catholic high school. Local executives began the presentation. Then Harris took the stage.
"It was like someone turned the lights up three more notches," Hopkins recalled. "It was like bringing in Anthony Robbins. He was a great salesman, in the best sense of the word. He was very sincere. They wouldn't have raised the money without him."
Instead of a simple appeal to the heart, something the audience had heard before from the church, Harris wowed donors with a package of materials that had been professionally developed, including schematic drawings, cost tables and fund-raising plans.
"That's what businessmen want, a business approach, instead of just coming with a hand out," said one executive who attended the meeting. "He also greeted or said goodbye to everyone in the room. That's a talent right there."
Harris chose the eagle as the new school's mascot inspired by Psalm 91, which says God "shall cover thee with his feathers, and under his wings shalt thou trust," and Isaiah 40:31, which proclaims: "They that wait upon the Lord . . . shall mount up with wings as eagles."
As at Mater Dei, Harris was close to students.
"It was like he was president of the corporation, but he knew everyone," Hopkins said. "He made sure the kids were comfortable and liked what they were doing."
Mike Carpenter, who played on the Santa Margarita basketball team, took a houseboat vacation on Lake Shasta with Harris, along with four other boys, four girls and two parents.
Harris treated the students as if he were a best friend, even water-skiing with them on the lake.
Carpenter, who now works in commercial real estate in Orange County, said he was struck by how eager the priest was to bond with the teens.
"He had a lot of energy, and he was almost overly friendly," he said. "I could tell how he could get so close to so many people."
In 1990, Pope John II elevated Harris to monsignor, an honored rank between father and bishop. He continued to raise his profile. He wrote a commentary for the Los Angeles Times in 1991, urging parents to teach their children to abstain from sex.
"As an educator faced with the challenging task of helping teenagers develop values, it is time to confront the compulsive hedonism that plagues adolescents," Harris wrote. "In order to accomplish anything of value, we need to learn to delay gratification."
Deathbed Declaration Begins the Downfall
In late 1993, accusations from Harris' past began to haunt him.
On his deathbed, Vincent Colice of Stanton gave his mother permission to go public with a secret he had told her two years earlier: that Harris had sexually assaulted him while he was a student at Mater Dei from 1977 to 1979. He was dying of AIDS, which he contracted years after his alleged encounter with Harris.
Lenora Colice wrote Harris in November 1993, accusing him of molesting her son. She sent a copy of the letter to diocesan officials.
A week later, Harris replied to Colice.
"Through counseling and other resources I have endeavored to work through many things," he wrote. "Hard work and prayer have helped. It may not be any consolation, but I am very sorry."
The letter was later entered into the court record in the Ryan DiMaria lawsuit. Harris' attorneys said it was meant to offer consolation, not as an admission of guilt.
After receiving Colice's letter, as well as anonymous accusations made through a lawyer by two other former students, the diocese asked Harris to step down temporarily as principal of Santa Margarita. In January 1994, he took a leave of absence, citing job-related stress.
Jeff Hopkins, son of developer Steve Hopkins and a guard on Santa Margarita's championship basketball team who graduated in 1994, remembered the day Harris left.
"The vibe at our school changed completely--for the worse," said Hopkins, who would often hang out at Harris' house along with other teammates.
"I wouldn't trade my four years with him as my principal for anything," said Hopkins, who now works in commercial real estate in Los Angeles.
Harris resigned as principal in February 1994. In a letter to supporters, he said he was leaving because of "stress that has been building for a long time." He did not mention the molestation allegations, which were not yet public knowledge.
Two days later, the Diocese of Orange flew Harris to St. Luke's in Maryland. Though depressed and anxious as he revealed disturbing childhood secrets, Harris impressed his evaluators with an external demeanor "striking for its calmness," the medical report said.
Harris' appearance was so polished that other patients started to confide in him "as if he were a therapist," according to the report.
"Michael has always been most concerned about appearances and his reputation at the expense of his own healing and inner health," wrote Dr. Stephen J. Rossetti of the St. Luke's staff. "As a result, he has been applauded by the community, but he has become isolated, confused, anxious and depressed."
He told the St. Luke's team that he couldn't confirm or deny the allegations of sexual abuse if the information were to be given to the diocese, the medical report said.
He told doctors that he had suffered from sexual conflicts for years and suggested that his affection for his students could have been misinterpreted. He also said he was sometimes sexually aroused while hugging adolescent boys.
When asked what an adult might feel if he were sexually involved with an adolescent, Harris replied that the adult "might want to 'care, to reach out, to console, to love,' " the report said.
The evaluation was sent to church officials in early March 1994. The doctors diagnosed Harris with same-sex paraphilia and ephebophilia--a sexual attraction to adolescent boys and sexual deviance. They also concluded that "there is substance to the allegations" of molestation and recommended in-patient treatment, which Harris refused.
The report said that usually in such cases, "the allegations that have surfaced are only a few of the actual incidents of abuse that have occurred."
In April, the insurance carrier for the Diocese of Orange informed church officials that it would not cover any legal costs related to Harris' conduct after Dec. 16, 1993--the date on which the diocese told the insurer about Lenora Colice's letter. Officials at the company, Ordinary Mutual, said that based on the church's own investigation, there appeared to be substance to the charges.
Two months later, the church placed Harris on "inactive leave," meaning he could no longer preside over liturgical services or collect a church salary. He never said another Mass.
That September, in the first public accusation against Harris, former student David Price sued the priest and the diocese, alleging that Harris molested him repeatedly when he sought counseling after his father's death in 1979. Price, a Santa Ana resident, said he remembered the episodes during a series of therapy sessions years later.
The news stunned a disbelieving Catholic community. Supporters held a rally for Harris. Though the priest did not attend, 350 parents, students and supporters sang "For He's a Jolly Good Fellow" in a park near the high school. Overhead, a plane pulled a banner in support of Harris.
A court later dismissed Price's suit, saying he had waited too long to file it. But the publicity brought forth a third accuser, Mark Curran of Santa Ana. Curran said that when he was 13, he and Harris were watching a Gene Kelly movie at Harris' diocese-provided home in Orange when the priest leaned over and fondled him.
Curran said he decided to go public with his accusation after seeing Harris' attorney on television denouncing the other accusers.
A fourth man, Larry Raheb of Monrovia, said Harris molested him during a spiritual counseling session in 1979. During the session, Raheb, then 20, confided to the priest that he was a homosexual.
Despite the allegations, Harris was a frequent visitor to Santa Margarita. He attended special events and paced the sidelines, in clerical garb, during football games. He officiated at a wedding and delivered a eulogy at a funeral, in violation of the inactive status imposed by the diocese.
This sparked a flurry of correspondence among church officials about how to deal with a man they knew doctors had diagnosed as a sexual deviate, without drawing the wrath of parents and others who remained loyal to Harris.
Msgr. John Urell, an influential figure in the Orange Diocese, wrote Harris at least two letters gently reminding him that he couldn't appear in public in clerical garb. Harris' successor wrote Urell in frustration after an uninvited Harris attended a school fund-raiser in 1997:
"A few of his loyalist parents remain, and I am resolved to accept that I will never affect the minds of the die-hards who never lose a chance to rub his memory in my face," Principal Merritt Hemenway wrote.
Urell replied: "I wonder if he will ever get the message that he is not welcomed at Santa Margarita Catholic High School events?"
From Msgr. Harris to Dr. Harris
Harris' visits to the school become less frequent and eventually stopped altogether. His life was entering a new chapter, the transformation from Msgr. Harris to Dr. Harris.
Harris went back to school, earning a doctorate in education at Pepperdine University.
He had dinner with Steve Hopkins, his Newport Beach developer friend. They chatted about Harris' future. Harris needed a new line of work, and Hopkins suggested that he put together a nonprofit to provide affordable housing.
"A lot of people get involved in nonprofits for the wrong reason," Hopkins said. "But Mike was sincere. He talked the talk and walked the walk. He's the perfect combination of believing in what he does and being able to work in the business community."
In 1996, Harris began the first of his six Caritas nonprofits. Harris' new business involved using bonds backed by local municipalities to buy mobile-home parks. The units were then rented to low-income residents through city affordable-housing programs.
One affordable-housing specialist who helped Harris get started said he was stunned by the high-profile board of directors he quickly assembled. Several board members wrote letters to city officials in Oceanside, Vista and Brea urging support for Harris' venture.
"He fills a room," said the man, who asked to remain anonymous. "I'm not surprised a whole lot of people don't want to believe [the allegations]. . . . We'd go to lunch and everywhere you'd go, there were people who knew him and would come up to him."
Long-Held Secrets Finally Made Public
Around the time Harris was embarking on his career in housing, Ryan DiMaria was working up the will to go public with his story.
In 1991, when DiMaria was a sophomore at Santa Margarita and despondent over a friend's suicide, his parents had asked Harris to counsel the boy and help him cope with his grief.
Ryan said that Harris took him out for dinner and a performance of "The Phantom of the Opera" in Los Angeles before returning to the priest's house, where the boy spent the night. Harris invited him to share his bed, DiMaria said. He said he refused and slept on a couch in another room. The next morning, DiMaria said, Harris repeatedly groped him.
DiMaria said he spent the next six years battling depression and thoughts of suicide until he shared the secret with his parents. DiMaria was the only accuser to bring his case to the district attorney's office, which declined to press charges in what was by then a 6-year-old incident.
So DiMaria filed a civil lawsuit, taking advantage of a new state law that extended the statue of limitations for cases of molestation. He then set out to confront Harris.
In the summer of 1997, a defiant DiMaria said, he and a friend from Santa Margarita drove to see Harris unannounced at the exclusive Lido Isle home of developer William Lyon, where Harris had been staying for months.
"He opened the door and saw us there," said DiMaria, now a law student living in Laguna Niguel. "In classic Michael Harris fashion, he wanted to give me a hug.
"I basically said, 'I trusted you. You manipulated that trust and betrayed that trust.' He just looked down. There was really no more discussing it."
The doctors at St. Luke's Institute in Maryland, the Roman Catholic Church's medical facility for troubled priests in the United States, examined Msgr. Michael A. Harris in February 1994 after he was accused of molesting a former student. Below are excerpts of the doctors' findings:
"Michael reported a family history which had considerable trauma. His mother had been physically and emotionally abused by her own mother, including being beaten and locked in a dark closet."
"He dated some teenage girls but the relationships were 'largely platonic.' He hugged and kissed some girls. When asked if he found the experience sexually stimulating, he said, 'Yes and no . . . not profoundly.' "
"Msgr. Harris said that he continues to experience confusion regarding his sexual orientation. 'At times I feel I am still in sexual adolescence. Confusion, compulsion, unresolved need fulfillment, guilt, fear, anxiety, etc., are still a part of my life in this regard.' "
"His overall . . . profile was typical of someone who may appear charming and tends to make a good first impression. . . . Such people have a tendency to act impulsively and use other people for their own gratification."
"Msgr. Harris needs to choose recovery and integrity over appearances
and reputation. This will be a hard choice for him."
By William Lobdell
An Orange County victim of sexual abuse who came to believe in the power of the justice system after his civil suit against the Roman Catholic Church resulted in a $5.2-million settlement and a series of reforms in 2001 was sworn in Wednesday as an attorney.
Before family and colleagues, Ryan DiMaria, 29, took the oath in the courtroom of Orange County Superior Court Judge James P. Gray, who mediated the settlement between DiMaria and the dioceses of Orange and Los Angeles.
"After all he's gone through, I think it's amazing," said J. Yvonne Hyatt, the judge's clerk, as she watched the ceremony.
DiMaria said he will specialize in helping other molestation victims, something he has done as a law clerk for the last four months. He works in the Costa Mesa offices of John Manly, one of the lawyers who represented him in his sexual abuse suit.
As a plaintiff, DiMaria insisted his settlement with the Orange and Los Angeles dioceses include reforms, such as a zero-tolerance policy, victims' hot lines and abuse awareness programs in parochial schools — now standard practices.
"I'm really grateful for what my attorneys did for me in my case," said DiMaria, who also was represented by Katherine K. Freberg of Irvine. "My fate was in their hands. It made me want to work on these kinds of cases and do the same for other people."
It's experience that is appreciated by victims of clergy sexual abuse.
"He's not just a lawyer trying to get money," said one client who alleges in a lawsuit filed this week that he had been molested by a former Orange County priest. "He's a lawyer trying to make things right. He has a cause. He's been through it. He understands."
Manly said he hired DiMaria a year ago as a clerk because of his expertise in real estate. DiMaria had sold mobile home parks before switching to law. Six months into the job, Manly said, DiMaria walked into his office, closed the door and asked to work with more than 50 of the firm's clients who allege they were molested by priests.
"I don't ask anybody to work on these cases because they're so hard emotionally," Manly said. "They have to volunteer."
In 1997, DiMaria filed suit against the two dioceses and Michael A. Harris, then a monsignor who had been a popular principal at two Orange County Catholic high schools, Mater Dei and Santa Margarita.
DiMaria alleged that he was molested twice in 1991 by Harris, a priest whose charismatic style earned him the nickname "Father Hollywood." The other alleged victims of Harris testified to bolster DiMaria's claims, although they weren't parties in the lawsuit.
The Archdiocese of Los Angeles was named in the lawsuit because DiMaria contended that archdiocesan officials knew of earlier molestation allegations against Harris dating to the 1970s but did nothing. The archdiocese has denied prior knowledge.
Harris, who was removed from the priesthood by the Vatican, has denied the allegations and accused church officials of settling the case for "their own business reasons."
DiMaria, who graduated from Chapman University School of Law in Orange in 2001, failed the state bar exam the first time after trying to prepare for it and his civil trial simultaneously. He didn't pass the next two times, saying it had become more difficult the longer he was out of law school. On his fourth try, he succeeded.
DiMaria married nine months ago and will become a father in August. Becoming a lawyer is another step in reclaiming his life, DiMaria said. At its nadir, he contemplated suicide. "Some days I was just trying to stay alive," DiMaria said.
Note from BishopAccountability.org: The following list of nonmonetary provisions in the DiMaria settlement has been assembled from the articles above. The quotations are from the articles, not from the text of the settlement agreement. In addition to the numbered nonmonetary provisions relating to diocesan policies, there were several other features of the settlement that are of interest. They are the lettered items in the list below. The numbers of the provisions were added by BishopAccountability.org and do not reflect the numbers (if any) in the settlement agreement, which is reported to have contained eleven nonmonetary provisions. Perhaps our number 2 and number 3 were a single provision in the agreement.
A. "Harris agreed as part of the settlement to apply to the Vatican to be removed from the priesthood" (art. 2)
B. "DiMaria said he was mailing a copy of the settlement agreement to every Catholic diocese in the country and is asking them to implement the policies" (art. 2)
C. "Superior Court Judge James Gray ordered the dioceses to issue public apologies to DiMaria and four other teen-age boys" (art. 2)
D. "The judge also said he would oversee the terms of the settlement to ensure they were enacted" (art. 2)
E. "[Ryan DiMaria] didn't get everything he wanted. Mahony had long ago set up an internal volunteer committee of mostly priests ostensibly to deal with sex-abuse allegations leveled at clergy. It is the same committee that in his headline-grabbing push recently the cardinal has promised to expand to include more lay people and perhaps even an abuse victim. But the archdiocese always has been secretive about the group. DiMaria, through Freberg, sought to find out what it does, and if DiMaria could share his experience as an abuse victim with its members. The request went nowhere, with a lawyer for Mahony insisting that the members preferred to remain anonymous." (art. 6)
1. "monitoring of schools and parishes" (art. 1);
4. "forbidding priests to be alone in social settings with minors" (art. 1)
5. "allow an independent group to regularly interview departing students about possible sexual misconduct at St. John's Seminary in Camarillo" (art. 1); "independent exit interviews of students quitting St. John's Seminary in Camarillo" (art. 4); "a commitment to conduct exit interviews to query graduating students about abuses they may have observed at St. John's Seminary College in Camarillo" (art. 6)
7. "create a victim assistance program for youths who say they have been molested" (art. 2)
8. "educational pamphlets to be distributed to Catholic churches and schools" (art. 2); "creation and distribution of the informational handbook for priests and parishioners, 'It's Never Okay; Ministry Never Includes Sex'" (art. 2); in March , the Los Angeles archdiocese distributed to parishioners a brochure called "Respecting the Boundaries: Keeping Ministerial Relationships Healthy and Holy ... the informational campaign was one of the measures imposed by the settlement" (art. 4); "distribution of materials about sex abuse to parishes and schools" (art. 6)
9. "requires that priests promise not to molest" (art. 2); "all new priests in the L.A. Archdiocese and the Diocese of Orange must now essentially sign a contract (humiliating, to say the least) promising not to molest children" (art. 6)
11. "an independent advocate who is not a priest or diocesan employee for alleged victims" (art. 4);
12. "the archdiocese agreed to insert a "green page" in the personnel files of every priest about whom potentially incriminating material has been collected, signaling that such information is on file somewhere else" (art. 6)]
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