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  How Ousted Clergy Fared
Church: Ex-Monsignor Michael Harris Has Notably Prospered; Others Less So

By Valeria Godines, Teri Sforza and Bill Rams
Orange County Register
May 5, 2002

One by one, 14 Orange County priests disappeared from their parishes. Oftentimes there were no explanations, no goodbyes. Over 17 years, the Diocese of Orange removed the priests, accused of sexual abuse, sometimes after quietly settling lawsuits and other times after the priests went into therapy.

Many were told never to minister again, but not every priest hung up his clerical collar or stopped working with children.

The Orange County Register tracked the 14 removed priests and discovered:

While most were ordered not to function as priests, two continued to do so.

Father Henry Perez, a self- described Anglican Catholic priest who works with 30 children in his church community, says, "The kids love me." Another has also been ministering, say police, and the diocese has requested that he not wear clerical garb or represent himself as a priest.

Of the priests told to leave, two have criminal records. One is a registered sex offender listed on a state database as living out of state. The other was arrested in 1973 and sentenced to three years' probation for sexual perversion involving a 14-year-old boy, according to the Milwaukee Sentinel. He was then transferred into the Diocese of Orange in 1976 even though church officials here knew he had what they called a "moral problem" with the boy in Milwaukee. The remaining 12 never faced arrest or charges, though some admitted sexual misconduct to diocesan officials.

Several have gone on to new lives with the help of friends and family. One started a nonprofit organization and earns $125,000 a year, tax records show. Another found a managerial job through a former parishioner. Yet another lives in Arizona in a one-story, Spanish- mission-style home across from a country club where he is a member. He's employed by his brother.

Other priests who apparently lacked such contacts live modestly and alone. One, who was presumed to be working at a diocese in Mexico, lives in a tiny trailer in Whittier -- sick and on dialysis, visited only by family.

The removal of priests is becoming an urgent issue with the Roman Catholic Church, gripped by a widening scandal that has left parishioners devastated, priests feeling hunted and victims feeling vindicated. When U.S. cardinals met recently with the pope in Rome, they debated but didn't pass a "zero tolerance" policy for swift removal of priests even if the sexual molestation happened decades ago.

The Diocese of Orange already has such a policy. It was adopted last year after the diocese and the Archdiocese of Los Angeles settled a $5.2 million case involving Monsignor Michael Harris, a former Mater Dei and Santa Margarita High School principal accused of abuse by several boys. Harris has denied the accusations.

Five priests have been removed -- some temporarily amid investigations -- since December under the policy.

Orange County church leaders say they are serious about protecting children. While abusive priests have slipped through the cracks in the past, that won't happen today, they say.

But some church leaders and community members remain at odds over the policy. Some believe it is the only way to deal with a serious problem. Others feel it unfairly shoves unprepared priests into secular society without any safety net.

The Diocese of Orange is aware of the two priests who have been ministering even though ordered not to -- something that angers victims and frustrates church officials, who have no power of law to stop the priests even if they defrock them.

Father Richard Coughlin, who ran the All-American Boys Choir in Costa Mesa and faced abuse allegations, has continued to practice as a priest even though he was removed from the diocese in 1993, according to church and police officials. Local church officials say they have sent him letters asking him to stop wearing his clerical collar.

In a recent interview, Coughlin said he celebrated Mass privately in his Yorba Linda home for family members. Detective Corinne Loomis of the Placentia Police Department investigated Coughlin and said she learned that he was celebrating Mass for private groups in Carlsbad.

"It speaks to how there is just no accountability, no follow-through and no sanction to make them do what they were supposed to do and told they were supposed to do," Loomis said. She is concerned that Coughlin's clerical attire inspires trust and respect.

"It's like wearing a police officer uniform out in public. People give you deference automatically. Even more so when you're a priest -- they really are in the spiritual hierarchy. They are practically God," Loomis said.

Father Henry Perez, meanwhile, works now in Whittier as a priest with an Anglican Catholic church -- a denomination formed in the 1940s after a split with the U.S. Episcopal Church.

As a Roman Catholic priest, Perez faced sexual-abuse allegations in Arizona and was subsequently removed from the Diocese of Orange in 1991 after local church officials learned of the Arizona case. He has denied all wrong doing. He said he offers first communion to children and celebrates Mass every Sunday. The 30 children he works with love him, he said, and his relationship with them is strictly professional. The Rev. John E. Altberg, a diocesan leader, said Perez is not an Anglican Catholic and ordered Perez last month to stop identifying himself as an affiliate of the organization.

Roman Catholic Church officials say they can't monitor priests once they are removed, but they have repeatedly asked Coughlin to stop acting as a priest. And they are frustrated to hear about Perez.

"When a priest leaves the ministry, we have a concern about that, but he goes into the larger population, and at that point it becomes a responsibility of law enforcement and people monitoring him in the population," local Bishop Tod Brown said.

When a priest is removed, the diocese offers financial help and health insurance until he finds a job.

"We obviously can't continue to follow him in that way because he is no longer our responsibility," said Brown. "He is responsible to society. I don't think it would be reasonable for us ... to monitor his behavior when he is no longer acting as a priest."

A tool to strip priests of authority to continue ministerial duties is laicization -- being returned to the state of a layman. Only Harris and Father John Lenihan have begun that process by petitioning the Vatican. Church leaders can impose laicization, too, but even that isn't a sure-fire way to stop outcast priests from ministering again, church officials point out. A bishops' conference next month will address how to make it easier to remove priests.

SUPPORTED BY HIS

MANY FRIENDS

When Harris left the diocese, he dropped into a safety net held by community supporters.

The charismatic priest was facing accusations of sexual abuse by 1994. In a historic move last year, the Orange and Los Angeles dioceses agreed to pay Ryan DiMaria $5.2 million and institute reforms addressing sexual abuse. Under the settlement, Harris, who had been placed on inactive leave but was still going to football games in his clerical collar, agreed to petition for his removal from the priesthood.

With support from friends, Harris built a new life. He earned his doctorate in education from Pepperdine, moved to Oceanside in 1996 and started the nonprofit Caritas Corp., which develops low-income housing.

His board of directors includes former Justice John Trotter, retired from the 4th District Court of Appeal; Roger Kirwan, chairman of the Orange County Performing Arts Center; William Lyon, builder; Peter Inman, developer; Burr McKeehan, retired surgeon; and Danielle Garr, interior designer.

Caritas' total assets were listed at $47.6 million in 2000. Harris' salary was $125,258, with a $10,112 expense account, according to tax forms. Two Lincolns are registered in his name, according to state records.

Harris also advises college fraternities and speaks against alcohol abuse on college campuses. He has opened his home to Sigma Pi fraternity members from Long Beach, Fullerton, San Diego and Berkeley.

Harris did not return phone calls seeking comment. His friends stressed that he has never been charged with a crime, and they feel he's being harassed and unfairly singled out.

"If these people only understood how much wonderfully good counseling he does," said Garr, the Santa Ana interior designer. "He's speaking against alcohol abuse, and he's really put together some fabulous materials. They're so good, I think they should be published.

"This man has had contacts with hundreds of thousands of young people, and two or three very confused individuals have come forward," Garr said. "It's the story of the rotten apple ruining the barrel. It drives me crazy."

Lenora Colice, whose late son, Vince, allegedly was abused by Harris, said the former priest should be in jail.

"The guy's getting $125,000 and counseling college boys. Wow. That's sad," said Colice. "Maybe this isn't very Christian of me, but I want to see him punished."

Lenihan, the priest recently removed from St. Edward the Confessor in Dana Point, also got help from his friends.

Lenihan was accused of years ago impregnating a teen-ager and paying for her abortion. He now manages a packaging company in Newberry Park, near Camarillo.

The company belongs to Valentina Whaling of Laguna Niguel, a former parishioner of Lenihan's. Now, instead of counseling the faithful, hearing confessions and celebrating Mass, Lenihan handles packaging orders and answers phones.

"I'm trying very hard to start a new life," Lenihan said. "I have pressing legal things, so I cannot talk to you. I'm in transition. I'm a private citizen now. Let me live a private life.

"There is no story on me. I'm not even halfway into being anything yet. I'm still desperately trying to just survive."

Every story written about him goes all around the world, he said. One reached an aged uncle in New Zealand, who is a priest. It broke his heart, Lenihan said.

"If you do blow my relative anonymity, I don't know where I will go. I may have to leave the country."

He said he is "absolutely not" working in any priestly capacity, "nor am I posing as one or attempting to be one. Give a person a chance."

STRUGGLING WITH

THE TRANSITION

Euleterio Ramos, now 61, initially stayed in the church after he was removed. He was accused of plying altar boys with alcohol, performing oral sex on them and taking nude photos of them. Ramos was sent for therapy and then landed at a diocese in Tijuana in the mid-1980s. He was the vicar at Divine Providence Church there, working with families and children.

Until now, everybody -- from his accusers to the attorneys in the case to church officials -- assumed he was working in Mexico.

But the Register found Ramos living alone in a tiny silver trailer at Rancho Trailer Hacienda on busy Washington Boulevard in Whittier.

Ramos, balding and bespectacled, slammed the door when approached at home. He has refused phone calls. An American flag hangs in the window of his trailer. Another, tiny U.S. flag flies from the window of his Toyota Tercel.

Some of Ramos' family, reached at a Boyle Heights house that Ramos once called home, say he is retired. They say he was in Mexico briefly and has been living in California. Property records show that he has lived in San Ysidro and La Mirada.

Neighbors said he rarely goes out and is quite ill with diabetes. Family members say they visit him occasionally. Only Spanish-speaking neighbors knew that he had ever been a priest. One who identified herself as Virginia said she allowed her children to visit with Ramos and never noticed anything wrong.

"He is a good person, and he keeps to himself," she said.

some Supervised

by fellow priests

Brother Gregory Atherton, removed from Orange County in 1990 after allegations of abuse surfaced and lawsuits were filed, still works in the Order of Friar Servants of Mary.

His supervisors decided to keep him in the ministry -- secluded and away from children.

Atherton, who allegedly abused three boys in the county from 1967 to 1986, now works at the National Sanctuary of Our Sorrowful Mother in Portland, Ore.

Father Michael Guimon, the provincial of his order, said it was decided to assign Atherton to the 62-acre botanical complex that serves as a shrine to Mary rather than make him leave, as is the current trend for some priests.

Atherton does secretarial work under close supervision of the executive director there, Guimon said. He went through counseling and has a supportive environment in which he is encouraged and monitored, the father said. No complaints have been lodged against him since his reassignment.

"He contributes to us with the skills that he has," said Guimon, who does not agree with "zero tolerance."

"So you let them go from ministry and from a group environment and then put them in society. Who is going to be watching them in society? This is something that is hotly debated now, and we need to talk about these issues," Guimon said.

"They are all by themselves, and I feel for them. That is not healthy and that is not Christian. In terms of forgiveness, that is not Christian," Guimon said. "People will say I am not in tune with the victim, but they (the victims) need to be taken care of, too. They shouldn't be a victim. That should never have happened."

Researchers Pam Eisenberg and Eugene Balk contributed to this report.

 
 

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