Dioceses settle abuse case
Courts: Catholic Church will pay $1.2 million in a civil lawsuit against a priest accused of molesting a teen girl some 20 years ago. A second priest denies allegations he made advances toward her.

By Carol McGraw and Valeria Godines
Orange County Register
April 2, 2002

Roman Catholic dioceses in Orange and Los Angeles have settled a $1.2 million civil lawsuit against a priest who is accused of impregnating a teen-age girl and paying for her abortion.

The victim also alleges that two high-ranking Orange Diocese officials ignored her pleas for help and that one of them made sexual advances toward her.

Officials with the diocese denied the latest accusations.

These developments are the latest in a wave of accusations against priests around America that have shaken the Catholic Church to its core. Many say it is the Catholic Church's darkest hour in modern times.

Lori Capobianco Haigh, 37, who brought the suit against the Rev. John Lenihan and the dioceses, said that she was molested between the ages of 14 and 17 when she lived in Villa Park.

On Monday, she also filed a report with the Orange County Sheriff's Department informing them of her encounters with the priests.

Sheriff's officials said Haigh's complaint will be investigated and a report sent to the district attorney, who will decide whether to file charges. Under state law, molestation charges can be filed after the six-year statute of limitations if the sexual conduct is severe.

Haigh alleges that Monsignor Lawrence Baird made advances to her some 20 years ago when she tried to report Lenihan's abuses. At the time Baird was a priest at Holy Family Cathedral, where her parents attended. He is now the diocese's communications director. He denies the allegations.

''He came around his desk and began to hug me. I couldn't believe it. I could feel that he had an erection. Father Baird was kissing me on the mouth. I pulled away in shock and tried to leave his office,'' Haigh said. As she left the office, she alleges, Baird gave her his phone number and told her to call if she needed to talk.

Baird denies even knowing Haigh and plans a defamation-of-character suit against her if she does not retract her words.

''I state unequivocally that I have no awareness of ever having met or spoken with this person in my life, and have absolutely no idea who she is,'' Baird said. ''I have no idea what motivates her to make such an insidious allegation. It demeans innocent people. ... I have 100 percent memory that I have never made inappropriate contact with any person during my 33 years as a priest. No one has ever made such a charge in those 33 years.''

At a press conference at the Diocese of Orange, Baird said he would be willing to take a lie-detector test. Haigh and her attorney, Kathy Freberg, made a surprise appearance at the press conference, quietly listening to Baird's comments from behind a row of television cameras.

Baird apologized to Haigh on behalf of Lenihan.

''I feel very sad. I pray for you and all those who have been sexually abused ... who have been victimized by sexual abuse by a priest or a lay person,'' Baird said to a stone-faced Haigh.

Haigh said that she clearly remembers the day she visited Baird in his office when the abuse allegedly occurred.

''It was just one visit. ... I can describe his office. I can describe our whole conversation,'' she said. ''I stand by everything I said. I was expecting an apology.''

Haigh says that several weeks after the alleged encounter with Baird, she also sought help from then-priest John Urell. Urell is now a monsignor assigned to the diocese's ''sensitive issues team'' which investigates allegations against priests. Urell removed himself from the team regarding the Lenihan case.

''Father Urell said, 'How long have you been telling these stories? Who else have you told these lies to?' '' He also told her he did not want to see her in church again, recalled Haigh.

Urell denies the allegations, according to diocesan officials. He was out of town and could not be reached.

Lenihan, who had been sent to Canada last year by the diocese for therapy, could not be reached for comment.

The Orange Diocese will pay $960,000 of the $1.2 million settlement. The Archdiocese of Los Angeles will pay the rest. The money will come from investment revenue and some insurance funds, not from the pastoral service appeal or other contributions from parishes and members, said Maria Schinderele, human resources director at the Diocese of Orange.

Bishop Tod D. Brown said in a statement Monday: ''I am deeply sorry for the hurt caused by the actions of Father Lenihan and extend my apology to Ms. Haigh and all victims of sexual abuse by clergy. I ask that the good people of the diocese remember all victims of abuse in their prayers of renewed hope during the Easter season.''

The settlement comes four days after the diocese announced it had completed a months-long review of the clergy roster and found it free from molester priests. Two priests have been let go.

As a teen, Haigh said she played guitar at Lenihan's Mass and belonged to a youth group. Lenihan gave her rides home afterward, and that is when the abuse occurred.

Haigh said that when she became pregnant, Lenihan told her to get an abortion. ''Father John drove me to his bank, withdrew the money and gave it to me to pay for the abortion.''

Several of her girlfriends accompanied her to Planned Parenthood for the abortion. When she got home, Lenihan showed up at her house with a malted milkshake for her, telling her mother he'd heard she was ''under the weather.''

Haigh said she had been afraid to tell her parents what happened, and they assumed her emotional problems were merely typical teen-age angst. In later years she underwent counseling, and says she once ''threatened my own life.''

She and her husband own a video-production company in Northern California. She has not returned to the church, but allows her sons, ages 11 and 2, to go with her parents under close supervision.

''I've lost my faith in God,'' she said.

Parishioners had mixed emotions about the settlement.

''If you and I commit a crime, we don't get out of it with money,'' said Berth Munoa of St. Boniface Church, where Lenihan once served. ''They should be prosecuted and be wearing chains on their legs like everyone else. That is what gets me. They are hiding behind the crucifix of Jesus Christ. ''

Victims-rights advocates applauded the settlement.

Mary Grant, 39, of Covina, who also won a settlement against Lenihan several years ago, said Monday: ''I am very grateful that Lori came forward and broke the silence on the abuse, and hopefully other victims will come forward. I think him being removed from the parish ... perhaps might give some victims a little bit of safety. ... Maybe now they will be believed.''

Register staff writers Aldrin Brown and Kelly Tokarski and news researchers Mike Rosentreter and Eugene Balk contributed to this report.

Contact McGraw at (714) 796-4945 or Contact Godines at (714) 445-6695 or

GRAPHIC: Lori Haigh listens to Msgr. Lawrence Baird read a statement at a press conference Monday at the Diocese of Orange offices in Orange in which he denied her allegations he once made sexual advances toward her The Rev. John Lenihan is accused of impregnating a teen-age girl and paying for her abortion some 20 years ago. The Rev. John Lenihan , left, flashes a peace sign while drinking a beer in this undated photo provided by Lori Haigh, who says she was molested some 20 years ago by Lenihan when he was a priest. In right photo, Haigh, right, speaks at a press conference Monday


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