Priest Who Admitted to Sex Abuse of Teen Agrees to Leave the Clergy
Religion: John Lenihan Had Been Pastor of a Dana Point Church
The Bishop of Orange Says Background Checks Turn up No New Offenders

By William Lobdell
LA Times
March 29, 2002

John Lenihan, an Orange County priest who has admitted to molesting a minor and having multiple affairs, has agreed to ask Pope John Paul II to remove him from the priesthood, church officials announced Thursday.

Tod D. Brown, bishop of the Diocese of Orange, also said a special investigation launched last month into his priests' backgrounds had concluded this week with one pastor found to have a history of sexual abuse. That priest, Michael Pecharich, was removed earlier this month from his Rancho Santa Margarita parish.

Pecharich and Lenihan are among three Orange County priests to make headlines in recent months during the Roman Catholic Church's unfolding sex scandal. The Diocese of Orange paid $5.2million in August 2001 to a single victim to settle molestation accusations against Msgr. Michael Harris. As part of the settlement, the dioceses of Los Angeles and Orange were required to fire any priests with a history of child molestation. Lenihan had no comment, his attorney said Thursday.

Lenihan, 56, will be laicized, a canonical process often used by clergy who wish to leave the priesthood to marry. The procedure will not be completed officially until the pope has given final approval, a formality in this case because of the request by Lenihan and the bishop.

Since the late 1980s, laicization has been used with increasing frequency to remove molesters from the priesthood. Previously, such priests often were stripped of their authority to perform religious ceremonies but remained in the clergy for life.

In the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, it's unknown whether Cardinal Roger M. Mahony has sought laicization for any of the six to 12 priests who sources say have been fired or asked to resign recently because of past sexual abuse of minors. A spokesman for Mahony didn't return phone calls Thursday.

Victims' rights leaders applauded the announcement of Lenihan's removal from the priesthood.

"Knowledge is power and people need to know why this man" was removed, said David Clohessy, national director of the St. Louis-based Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests, known as SNAP.

In August, the Diocese of Orange asked Vatican officials to remove Msgr. Michael Harris from the priesthood as part of the settlement.

Lenihan was removed as pastor of St. Edward Church in Dana Point in September after he, under the pseudonym "Father X," revealed to a Los Angeles Times columnist that he had had several sexual relationships, including "four serious ones."

In 1991, Lenihan admitted to church officials that he sexually abused a teenage girl in the 1970s. The church paid $25,000 to Mary Grant to settle her lawsuit. The popular priest was allowed to continue to work in the diocese.

In December, Lenihan was accused in a civil lawsuit of molesting a second teenage girl for several years starting in the late 1970s.

"It's way overdue," Grant said of Lenihan's removal from the clergy. "I'm glad that Roman collar isn't going to be his path to molesting other children."

Grant was unable to seek criminal charges against Lenihan because of statute of limitation problems.

Brown said he asked Lenihan to consider quitting the priesthood last fall before the latest lawsuit. The priest was sent to a counseling center in Canada but didn't complete the program, Brown said.

Lenihan agreed to the laicization last week in a decision that Brown said "was very painful for him."

"My heart goes out to his victims, both minors and adults, and his parishioners," Brown said. "I also feel sorry for Father Lenihan."

If a priest doesn't agree with his removal, he can be defrocked.

Lenihan, who was ordained in 1969, will be paid by the Diocese of Orange until his removal gets final Vatican approval. He will receive a standard pension, church officials said.

Brown said he was pleased that the special investigation into his priests' backgrounds is complete.

"I'm quite confident now that there is no one active in ministry who [based on past incidents] poses a threat to minors," he said.


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