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  Group Opposes Honor for Priest
Sex Abuse Survivors Say Toasting O.C.'s Msgr. Baird Is an Insult Because He Defended a Tainted Cleric and Sued a Woman for Slander.

By David Haldane
Los Angeles Times [Los Angeles CA]
October 6, 2003

A Roman Catholic group representing victims of molestation by priests has called for the cancellation of a dinner Friday honoring a priest it says is tainted by the church's sex abuse scandal.

Msgr. Lawrence J. Baird, former spokesman for the Diocese of Orange and now its director of development, is scheduled to be honored as a "Defender of the Faith" with a dinner hosted by St. Michael's Abbey on behalf of its parochial school, St. Michael's Preparatory. But the regional director of Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests, a national support group with 5,000 members, says the event should be canceled because Baird once defended a fellow priest known by church officials to be a molestation risk and, more recently, responded to allegations of sexual impropriety against himself by unsuccessfully suing his accuser for slander.

"This is not what Jesus would do," Mary Grant, SNAP's southwest regional director, said of the gala event at Mission San Juan Capistrano. "We should not hold up that kind of un-Christian behavior as a model."

Said John C. Manley, a Catholic attorney representing several people who say they were sexually abused by priests: "This is not the type of person that is a defender of my faith, and it's not what I was taught about faith. Honestly, I would rather eat out of a trash can than eat that dinner."

Baird, who has never been charged with a crime nor been subject to any legal proceedings alleging wrongdoing on his part, said late last week that he had spoken on behalf of the accused priest before being aware of information pointing to his guilt that was known to other church officials. As for the slander lawsuit he filed, he said, "Everyone possesses the right to file a lawsuit, and I pursued a legal avenue that was available to me and every citizen."

In a letter to Grant, the Right Rev. Eugene J. Hayes, abbot of St. Michael's, an Orange County institution, said the dinner expected to raise about $150,000 in scholarships for needy students is critical to the abbey's prep school fund-raising efforts. "Canceling the dinner," he wrote, "would hurt most of all the young men who depend on us for a quality Catholic education."

And in similar letters to both Grant and Manley, Marjorie DeClue writing on behalf of the prep school's lay board of advisors defended the decision to honor Baird and Msgr. Paul Martin, a retired pastor at Mission San Juan Capistrano. Both men, she wrote, enjoy a "long-standing friendship with St. Michael's that dates back to the '60s. The quality of the school's educational program would not be what it is today without the friendships of these two strong supporters. Each has made financial sacrifices over the years to help students attend St. Michael's."

The tensions between Baird and members of what Grant calls the "survivor community" date from 1994, when accusations of sexual misconduct first surfaced against fellow priest Michael A. Harris, the former principal of Mater Dei High School in Santa Ana and, later, Santa Margarita High School in south Orange County.

Harris was placed on administrative leave and sent to St. Luke's Institute in Maryland the Catholic Church's medical treatment center for troubled priests. There, doctors concluded that he was sexually attracted to adolescent boys, that "there is substance to the allegations" and that the allegations were probably just the tip of the iceberg.

Eventually, the Los Angeles and Orange dioceses settled with one of Harris' alleged victims for $5.2 million, and the man once nicknamed "Father Hollywood" because of his good looks and charisma was removed from the priesthood. Yet just days after the St. Luke findings were conveyed to church officials but before they were made public Baird, acting in his capacity as diocesan spokesman, defended Harris to newspaper reporters as "an icon to the priesthood."

"He's never apologized," said Manley, adding that some of his clients who are alleged victims of Harris were deeply hurt by Baird's statement, even to the point of feeling suicidal. "Anyone who would go to a dinner to honor someone who did that needs to seriously examine their conscience."

Baird also found himself in SNAP's crosshairs last year after filing the slander lawsuit against Lori Haigh of San Francisco, who had accused him of sexual impropriety. Haigh had won a $1.2-million settlement from the church after saying she had been molested and impregnated as a teenager by Father John Lenihan, once a South County priest. In announcing the settlement, Haigh told reporters that she had sought Baird's help 20 years before while still being abused and that he had responded by making sexual advances toward her.

Baird immediately called a news conference, vigorously denied any misconduct and later filed the lawsuit. It was eventually dismissed by a judge, who ordered the priest to pay Haigh's legal costs.

To date, according to her lawyer, Katherine Freberg, that debt about $60,000 has not been paid.
 
 
 

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