Let Us Prey
Despite Recent Conviction, Critics Say the DA Goes Easy on Child-Molesting
By Gustavo Arellano
Orange County Weekly
Downloaded April 12, 2004
[See also other
articles by Gustavo Arellano.]
When Judge Richard W. Stanford sent Father Gerardo
Tanilong to prison last week, it was very nearly a first for Orange County.
Tanilong, who most recently served at Our Lady of Guadalupe in Santa Ana’s
Delhi barrio, had pleaded guilty in January to charges of fondling a 15-year-old
girl while riding in a car with the victim and her family.
|Illustration by Bob Aul
The maximum penalty for Tanilong’s crime—two felony counts of lewd conduct
with a minor—is three years and eight months. But deputy district attorney
Sheila Hanson asked the judge for just one year, with three years probation.
Stanford countered with six months, reasoning that Tanilong "immediately
expressed remorse" for his crime, that the groping did not constitute
"substantial sexual contact," and that Tanilong "is not
a danger to society."
"The People were satisfied that the system works," Hanson later
told reporters. "[The sentence] is reasonable."
However you set the price for groping a kid, Hanson has reason to cheer:
though the Diocese of Orange admits it harbored at least 22 child-molesting
priests in its 28-year history, Tanilong is just the second county Catholic
priest ever convicted of sexually abusing a minor. You have to go back
18 years for the last conviction, the 1986 trial of Father Andrew Christian
Andersen. He pleaded guilty to 26 counts of inappropriately touching four
altar boys while serving at St. Bonaventure in Huntington Beach.
Though such convictions are rare, the office of DA Tony Rackauckas is
crowing. "Since Tony has been here, we’ve filed every case we possibly
could. I can’t say we’ve had a difficult time convicting guilty priests,"
says DA spokeswoman Susan Schroeder. "If you consider [the Tanilong
case], you could say we’re batting 100 percent."
Schroeder’s clearly no baseball fan. But she has some evidence that the
DA is aggressively pursuing child-molesting priests. Last year, Rackauckas
issued arrest warrants for four priests wanted on child-molestation charges.
One killed himself in Mexico with federal agents closing in; three others
escaped trial because of a Supreme Court decision that changed the statute
But critics continue to say the DA goes easy on priests who prey on kids.
Ryan DiMaria alleges he was molested by his school’s principal, Father
Michael Harris, while a junior at Santa Margarita High School in the early
’90s. When DiMaria filed a civil lawsuit in 1999 against Harris, he had
every reason to believe Harris would face jail time.
"We met with a deputy DA and let him know we had all the evidence
he would need—there was more evidence in [the Harris] case than you can
imagine," recalled DiMaria
A 1994 psychological report included in the civil trial concluded that
Harris was sexually attracted to adolescents and warned, "It has
been our experience that in many cases like these, the [sexual abuse]
allegations that have surfaced are only a few of the actual incidents
of abuse that have occurred." Other evidence about Harris had been
public for years, though, including the fact that the Diocese of Orange
prohibited Harris from presiding over Mass during the mid-’90s after accusations
that he repeatedly fondled at least four other boys.
The DA had a year to file criminal charges against Harris from the day
that DiMaria reported his claims. But DiMaria says that calls to county
prosecutors indicated the case had stalled. Frustrated, his lawyers frantically
called the DA to remind investigators of the impending one-year deadline.
This time, according to DiMaria, the DA responded immediately: "We
got a meeting soon after the call. The day after that, they informed us
that they were not interested in filing charges. Not enough evidence."
Not enough evidence? A few months after the meeting, in 2001, Orange County
Superior Court Judge Jim Gray ordered Harris, the Orange Diocese, and
the Archdiocese of Los Angeles to publicly apologize to DiMaria and four
other alleged Harris victims and to pay DiMaria $5.2 million in damages
as part of a pretrial settlement. That court order represents the largest
single-plaintiff settlement against the American Catholic Church and cemented
the Orange Diocese’s reputation for covering up priestly pederasty. But
it remains a hollow victory for DiMaria.
"Not only did Harris serve no jail time, but also I felt then and
now that the DA never had any intention of filing charges against him,"
says DiMaria, who now works for Manly & McGuire, a Costa Mesa law firm
with about 20 sex-abuse lawsuits pending against the diocese. "The
whole thing really smelled the way that it played out. The unfortunate
reality is that politics sometimes plays an ugly role in justice."
DA spokeswoman Schroeder denied that politics plays any part in her office’s
treatment of Catholic priests suspected of molesting children. "We
have a duty to file cases only when we could prove that case beyond a
reasonable doubt," she said. "All I can say is that we have
done our due diligence in filing every possible [priest-molestation] case
that we could."
Tell that to Mary Grant. In 1991, the Orange Diocese settled a lawsuit
with Grant for $25,000 after she alleged that Father John Lenihan had
sexually molested her during the late 1970s while he served at St. Norbert’s
in Orange. In the course of the investigation, the Anaheim Police Department
recorded Lenihan on tape and in depositions graphically describing his
encounters with the teenage Grant. At the time of the civil suit, the
statute of limitations had run out, and Lenihan wasn’t eligible for criminal
prosecution. But authorities didn’t bother to reopen the case in 1994,
when the California legislature erased the statute-of-limitations law
on child molestation.
"You’d think that Lenihan would be on their radar screen because
of the prominence of my case," says Grant, now western regional director
for Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP). "But no
one even bothered to tell me until 1999 about the new law or that Lenihan
could now be prosecuted."
When she learned state legislators had abolished the statute of limitations
on cases like hers, Grant asked Anaheim police to re-file charges, using
evidence obtained in her 1991 settlement. Officers told Grant they lost
the report long ago, along with all the evidence. Even after Grant handed
over personal copies of Lenihan’s confession, the Anaheim PD didn’t forward
their case to the DA’s office until a year later. By then, it was too
"The DA’s office rejected my case, saying they didn’t get it in a
timely manner," says Grant. "But with the type of access they
have in the community, you’d think they would’ve been more aggressive.
No. Something fell through the cracks again. It gets a little suspicious
after a while."