4th Priest with Ties to Dana Point Church Placed on Leave

By Carol McGraw and Joel Zlotnik
Orange County Register
April 30, 2002

The Catholic Diocese of Orange has placed a fourth priest with ties to St. Edward the Confessor Church in Dana Point, Calif., on administrative leave regarding allegations of sexual misconduct.

The Rev. Denis Lyons, who served for the past six years at the 4,320-family Catholic community, was accused last week by a man who said the priest made advances toward him when he a teen-ager in about 1979.

Lyons served at St. John the Baptist Catholic Church in Costa Mesa, Calif., at the time. Four others at that parish complained about the priest's advances, but he remained at his job and was required to get therapy. He was scheduled to retire in July.

Lyons' removal follows that of the Revs. John Lenihan, Henry Perez and Sigfried Widera who also had served at the church, although none of the allegations of sexual abuse were made there.

"That many priests at one church is unprecedented as far as I know," says David Clohessy, director of St. Louis-based Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests. The closest other case he could recall is a West Palm Beach, Fla., diocese that relieved two consecutive bishops for sexual misconduct.

In letters sent to parish members, Bishop Tod D. Brown, said, "While news of this sort is never good, I am especially saddened that it happened to the people of St. Edward the Confessor. You and your parish have suffered a great deal because of recent scandals, yet I have marveled at your faith and perseverance. You are in my daily prayers and I hope that you will find in this suffering a greater faith and trust in the benevolence of our Lord Jesus Christ."

At the church, the faithful were once again numbed by the news.

"All this is ravaging our understaffed church. But it is good that the Catholic Church is changing and dealing with it, even though it is heartbreaking," said Susan Martus, A Dana Point homemaker whose three grown children grew up in the parish which was established in 1969.

Dana Point City Councilwoman Ingrid McGuire said St. Edward's large congregation has been an important institution in Dana Point _ a place where the community has come together for more than religious purposes.

"I have not heard any talk in the community, just a feeling of sadness and disappointment and being let down," she said.

The congregation will rise above these charges as they have the others, she said.

Lyons' in 1993 admitted to inappropriate behavior toward two male adults who worked at St. John the Baptist Church. The following year, parents of two boys contacted the diocese regarding inappropriate advances occurring around 1979. The brothers were 14 and 16, at the time of the alleged incidents, which the priest denied. The behavior described in some instances was "inappropriate touching over clothes,"

Lyons was sent to a residential treatment center for eight months, and then agreed to ongoing counseling, support meetings and yearly week-long evaluation, said Maria Schinderele, diocese director of human relations.

Earlier this year, the diocese's Sensitive Issues Committee reviewed Lyons file, but the reports did not meet the zero-tolerance criteria for placing him on leave, Schinderle said.

"We received positive reports about Lyons each year, which said he was not a risk to children," Schinderle said. "The psychological assessments indicated he was not a pedophile, which refers to those attracted to children."

When the new complaint surfaced last week, the diocese removed him from the church and turned over information to Costa Mesa police, Schinderle said.

Lyons is at a retreat house in Orange County and will not return to ministry. He could not be reached for comment.

Lyons has been semi-retired, and his title "senior pastor" refers to his long service, not his administrative status within the parish. He said mass and helped with administrative duties.

None of those who have come forward with allegations, have asked for monetary settlements or filed suit, diocese officials say. Victims' names were not released.

In a statement Monday, Bishop Brown asked Orange County's one million Catholics to pray for victims.

Penny Maynard, CEO of the Dana Point Chamber of Commerce, said the core strength of St. Edward the Confessor comes from the parishioners and will remain regardless of what happens with priests.

"There's always been a very positive impression of St. Edward," Maynard said.

Others agree. "I think there will be a small percentage of people who will be less supportive of the church's activities," said George Munson, a St. Edward neighbor and critic of church expansion plans. "It might have a small impact but I think it'll be really small."

Munson said he expects crowds will be as big as ever for the "Fiesta with Friends" festival slated for May 17-19. "People are still going to go," he said.

But Linda Burke, 54, of Dana Point, wants to see a church boycott. She attended St. Edward 2 [ years ago, but quit going to any church after she heard of the charges against Lenihan who headed the church until his dismissal last fall for sexual misconduct. A Catholic all her life, she had strayed from the church for a number of years, and returned two years ago.

"I was happy to be back. But then all this hit. "I would never walk back in a Catholic Church. My anger is that children are being hurt and they carry those scars many years."


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