Questions for the Diocese

Orange County Register [California]
Downloaded March 20, 2003

The Roman Catholic Diocese of Orange has portrayed itself as a model for dealing with the priest sexual-abuse crisis. Last week, for instance, it received praise from the district attorney's office for its willingness to release documents leading to the arrest of John Lenihan, a defrocked priest who admits having sexual encounters with underage girls as far back as 1978.

That's a heartening development.

In particular, the Diocese of Orange released a letter to the pope in which Mr. Lenihan asked to be released from the priesthood. In the letter, he admits having had affairs with teen-agers.

That stands in stark contrast to the Archdiocese of Los Angeles. Citing First Amendment concerns, Cardinal Roger Mahony has told investigators to take a hike, choosing instead to hide correspondence that could lead to the arrest of priests who acted like predators, despite the archbishop's well-publicized vows to be completely open with investigations.

Cardinal Mahony is moving down the path of Cardinal Bernard Law of Boston, who resigned last year after a court forced the church to release embarrassing documents that showed the degree to which the church covered up for accused molesters. Cardinal Mahony's efforts at cover-up have prompted the state Legislature to push forward legislation, and rightly so, extending the time limit on criminal filings related to abuse, so that the archdiocese cannot run out the clock on prosecutions.

And while the Diocese of Orange has been more cooperative than the L.A. archdiocese, there's good reason to question why the Diocese of Orange took so long to act.

Allegations about Mr. Lenihan arose in the late 1980s, and even after the diocese paid a settlement in 1991 he continued to serve as a priest until his removal from St. Edward Catholic Church in Dana Point in 2001. In another case, the Diocese of Orange fought all the way to the state Supreme Court (in the 1990s) the release of a treatment report regarding Msgr. Michael Harris, the former Mater Dei and Santa Margarita Catholic High School principal accused of molesting several students.

Perhaps significant improvement has been made, but we find some statements from the Diocese of Orange troubling. For instance, a diocese spokesperson reiterated to us this week the diocese's support for how the L.A. archdiocese is handling matters. But Cardinal Mahony is taking an approach that is the opposite of full disclosure.

In recent articles, diocese officials have tried to deflect criticism by ascribing criticism to anti-Catholic sentiments. But it is not anti-Catholic to wonder why church officials did not do more to remove sexual predators from positions of authority.


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