Priest’s Slander Suit Is Rejected

By Mike Anton and Chris O'Connell
LA Times
November 28, 2002

A judge Wednesday threw out a slander suit brought by a prominent Orange County priest against a woman who this year received a $1.2-million sexual-abuse settlement from the Roman Catholic Church.

The case began after Lori Haigh, who had contended she was molested and impregnated by a priest as a teenager in Orange County, won the settlement. At an April news conference, she said a second priest – Msgr. Lawrence Baird, now spokesman for the Diocese of Orange – had made sexual advances 20 years ago when she sought help with the molestation. Within two weeks, Baird sued for slander.

San Francisco Superior Court Judge A. James Robertson said he was dismissing the slander suit because Baird had made himself a public figure by holding his own news conference to defend himself against Haigh's accusation. Public figures, by law, must show there had been a reckless disregard for the truth to win – a standard that the judge found Baird was unable to meet.

"I don't think that if he hadn't made the press conference that I would be finding this," Robertson said. Baird will also have to pay Haigh's legal bill.

Haigh said she hopes the ruling "gives strength to other victims not to be intimidated. Because of my youth, my fear, I kept silent for the longest time."

Baird, who has denied any wrongdoing, declined to comment. His attorney, Robert C. Baker, said there are no immediate plans to appeal. "We're disappointed, obviously," he said.

At Wednesday's hearing, Baker argued that Baird was thrust into the public eye by Haigh and that he had no choice but to call his own news conference to defend himself. "It is Lori Haigh that injected him into the controversy by holding the press conference," Baker said.

Wednesday's ruling was granted in response to Haigh's motion that Baird's suit violated California's anti-SLAPP law – Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation – designed to protect activists from frivolous lawsuits that seek to scare them away.

"This is a lawsuit that should never have happened," Mark Goldowitz, Haigh's attorney, said after the hearing. "It was brought to shut her up and to force her to recant. The judge's ruling is a sign that he's not going to let this happen."

The ruling was praised by victims' advocates, who hope it will stop priests from suing or threatening to sue their accusers. About half a dozen such cases have been brought by priests nationwide in the last year.

"Hallelujah!" said David Clohessy, executive director of the Chicago-based Survivors Network for those Abused by Priests. "I think there's nothing more despicable or hurtful than church leaders who sue victims. People like Lori deserve and need to be praised by church leaders, not sued."

But Baird's defeat is a blow for priests who are falsely accused and may have turned to the civil courts as the only way to defend themselves and their reputations, said Father Robert Silva, president of the National Federation of Priests Councils.

"It will discourage them" from filing lawsuits, Silva said. "Priests across the board are feeling very, very vulnerable right now and no one has come to their defense. They've become the bad guys in society."


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