Anaheim Priest Acknowledges Sexual Contact with Girl in 1978

By Gregg Zoroya
Orange County Register
February 4, 1991

[See also Bishop Disagrees with Register's Reporting of Case and Why We Are Publishing This Story.]

A priest who leads one of Orange County's largest and most distinguished Roman Catholic parishes has agreed to undergo therapy as a condition of settling a lawsuit in which he admitted sexual contact with a 15-year-old girl in 1978.

The Rev. John Lenihan, 44, pastor of St. Boniface Catholic Church in Anaheim and a prominent community activist, was sued last year by Anaheim resident Mary Staggs and her husband, Scott, both 27 and the parents of three children.

Staggs accused Lenihan of molesting her numerous times when she was between the ages of 13 and 17 and a member of his church youth group at St. Norbert Catholic Church in Orange. Church officials, she contended, knew of the abuse and covered it up.

In an interview last week, Staggs said she repressed memories of the sexual abuse until she saw a newspaper photograph of Lenihan on Oct. 14, 1989. His picture accompanied news of a $ 2 million fund-raising drive at St. Boniface.

She said those memories plunged her life into an emotional turmoil from which she is struggling to recover. Five months after the article appeared, she filed suit against Lenihan in Orange County Superior Court.

In an evidence-gathering hearing in October, Lenihan admitted to two sexual encounters with Staggs in the summer of 1978. At the time, he was a 32-year-old priest and she was 15.

"I was in love with Mary," Lenihan testified, "and I sought more intimacy. "

He testified that church officials assigned him to his post at St. Boniface eight years ago, even though they knew of his past relationship with Staggs.

The priest also testified that he underwent therapy in 1982 after having a sexual relationship with an adult woman.

In an out-of-court settlement Jan. 15, the Diocese of Orange agreed to pay Staggs an undisclosed sum of money and arrange for Lenihan to see a Los Angeles psychologist.

Last week, Lenihan refused to discuss the lawsuit. "Absolutely no comment," he said before hanging up on a reporter.

Neither Lenihan nor church attorneys would discuss the lawsuit, the allegations of molestation or Lenihan's testimony.

The Most Rev. Norman F. McFarland, bishop of the Diocese of Orange issued a statement Saturday describing the relationship between Lenihan and Staggs as an "unfortunate incident" that did not involve sexual intercourse.

The relationship was addressed adequately in 1978 by church officials, McFarland said, adding that "there has not been the slightest hint of wrongdoing or scandal connected" to Lenihan since.

Staggs said she and her husband decided last week to discuss the lawsuit publicly to warn parents that what happened to her could happen to others.

Staggs said her trust in the Catholic Church has been shattered and she now attends a non-denominational Christian church.

At his Oct. 2 deposition, Lenihan described two sexual encounters with Staggs in the summer of 1978. In one, he asked her to partially disrobe. A month later, he touched her sexually.

He testified that at that time, "I was naive. I had never been involved in any relationship with a woman in my life. I did not understand what was happening to me and, subsequently, obviously, I realized that (this conduct with Staggs) was very wrong. "

Today, Lenihan leads one of Orange County's oldest Catholic churches, established in 1875 and attended by 3,900 families.

In recent years, he has led campaigns urging the city of Anaheim to rehabilitate low-income neighborhoods, add new recreational services and locate a community center in the blighted Jeffrey-Lynne area.

"I know he does a lot of good down here," Anaheim Mayor Fred Hunter said. "He's always giving. You know what I mean? I mean, that's what a priest is supposed to do, but he does it beyond the call of duty. "

Under Lenihan's leadership, St. Boniface became the first Orange County parish with a year-round educational program. The church feeds the homeless, offers English courses and at one time ran an amnesty program for illegal immigrants.

Anaheim police briefly investigated Lenihan last year when Staggs notified detectives about her memories of being molested in 1978.

According to court records, police officers tape-recorded a 1989 telephone conversation between Staggs and Lenihan in which the priest admitted sexual contact with her in 1978.

Criminal charges could not be filed because the statute of limitations for child molestation expired long ago, Anaheim police Detective Jack Jessen said. He said he tried to determine if there were any other victims but concluded none could be found.

According to Lenihan's deposition, church elders became aware of his involvement with Staggs in 1978 when her stepfather complained to the Archdiocese of Los Angeles.

The stepfather was angry about a love letter Lenihan had written to the girl that contained a bracelet and a "profession of love," the priest testified.

After Staggs' stepfather complained, three monsignors separately approached Lenihan and warned him to stay away from the girl, according to his deposition.

One of the monsignors was Michael Driscoll, now auxiliary bishop of the Diocese of Orange, Lenihan testified.

Staggs now says the church was trying to cover up what had happened.

"I don't know that anybody can make sense of why they glossed over it. To protect him? To protect their image of the church?" she said.

"It hurts to know they would know about this and not do anything to stop it or prevent it from happening to anyone else."





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