Allegations against 3 Priests Costly for Diocese of Orange
Their Accusers Will Receive Nearly Half of $100 Million Settlement, Records Show

By Chris Knap
The Orange County Register [California]
May 17, 2005

Nearly half of the $100 million in sexual- abuse settlements paid by the Diocese of Orange earlier this year went to plaintiffs who named one of three once-beloved priests as an abuser, court records show.

The three are Siegfried Widera, Eleuterio Ramos and Michael Harris.

The diocese settled with 11 men who claimed abuse by Ramos; nine who claimed abuse by Widera; and nine who claimed abuse by Harris. In three of the nine Harris cases, a church layman was also accused.

Settlements in those 29 cases totaled $46.78 million, according to a court order filed in Los Angeles Superior Court. The settlements by the church release it from liability but are not a legal judgment of guilt or innocence.

In 2001 the diocese settled with one of Harris' accusers for $5.2 million. In the 1990s it reached confidential settlements with two of Ramos' accusers. Ramos and Widera are now dead.

Harris, who runs a nonprofit corporation in San Diego, did not respond to three requests for comment. Harris gave up his priest collar in 2001, but has always denied abusing young boys.

A Los Angeles judge is scheduled to decide today whether to release thousands of pages of confidential documents that detail the church's handling of these and 42 other church employees.

Others named in the lawsuits also have denied the allegations, including Thomas Hodgman, accused of impregnating a music student in 1986; the Rev. Richard Delahunty, accused of abusing a young boy in 1981; and the Rev. Richard Coughlin, accused of abusing choir boys from 1965 to 1981.

The Register attempted to contact all of the accused who could be located at their homes, at their offices, or through their attorneys. None would comment for this story.

The release of the documents was a key part of the record $100 million settlement forged earlier this year.

Orange church leaders have apologized, acknowledging that they did not try hard enough to protect Catholic children, and agreed to allow the release of the records.

But five priests and three lay teachers - including Harris, Coughlin, Hodgman and Delahunty - have petitioned the court to keep their records secret. The Archdiocese of Los Angeles also asked the court not to release documents from the Los Angeles church.

Plaintiffs' lawyers were fuming over that filing last week, pointing out that some priests allegedly abused previously in Los Angeles.

For instance, lawsuits accuse both Harris and Ramos of sexually abusing boys in Los Angeles County before they were transferred to Orange. The confidential documents could shed light on whether church leaders in Los Angeles knew of the accusations - as well as what Orange church leaders knew when they accepted the young priests.

Plaintiffs' attorney John Manly criticized Archbishop Roger Mahoney for the effort to keep priest records secret.

"That's something you would expect from a tobacco company, not somebody who says he is the successor to the apostles of Jesus," Manly said. "Those boys and girls have a right to let people know what happened to them, and what the church knew about it."

J. Michael Hennigan, attorney for the archdiocese, said "our objection is simply because we can't tell what is being released. We have no objection to Orange releasing its own documents, which we assume is all that is in issue."