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3 Claim Molestation by Catholic Brother : Lawsuits: Damages are being sought in connection with alleged incidents at high school, church and on trips from 1967 to 1986.

April 22, 1993|ERIC YOUNG | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SANTA ANA — Three men allege that a Roman Catholic brother who worked at an Orange County high school and church sexually molested them as youths for several years and told them that what he was doing was "an appropriate activity," according to lawsuits filed recently.

Brother Gregory Atherton of the Order of Friar Servants of Mary molested the youths over different periods of time from approximately 1967 to 1986, according to the suits filed in Orange County Superior Court.

A brother is a member of a religious order who undergoes specific religious training and takes vows of chastity and poverty but cannot undertake any duties of a priest, such as saying Mass or performing baptisms.

The suits allege that the molestations occurred at Servite High School in Anaheim, St. Philip Benizi Church in Fullerton and during various trips to Northern California and to other offices of the national religious order, also known as Servites.

Atherton was the registrar at Servite High School from 1958 to 1967 and then a music director at St. Philip Benizi parish from 1967 until 1988, the suits say. The alleged abuse ranged from fondling to oral copulation, said Joseph Dunn, one of two lawyers who filed the suits for the men.

The president of Servite High School, Father Gerald Horan, called the allegations regrettable and unfortunate and declined further comment. Officials at St. Philip Benizi declined comment Wednesday.

The lawsuits allege that Atherton tried to silence the boys by telling them that "the sexual contact he was engaging in was an appropriate activity." He said this "to induce the plaintiff not to report the sexual conduct," and the boys did not report it to any authorities, the suits say.

Thus began a period of "psychological distress, shame, guilt, self-blame, depression, repression," which lasted until about three years ago, the suits contend.

The men, now aged 24 to 39, said it was only within the past few years, while undergoing therapy for other problems, that they recalled the alleged incidents, according to Dunn and lawyer Jeffrey R. Anderson of St. Paul, Minn.

The three men--Michael Moyneur of Mission Viejo, Michael Tietge of West Los Angeles and Timothy Ender of Fallbrook--did not know each other as children but met through mutual friends in the past few years and then contacted an attorney about filing suit, Dunn said.

Moyneur, the only one of the three who could be reached for comment Wednesday, said he never complained to officials of the religious order and made allegations against Atherton for the first time in the lawsuit.

But lawyer Bob McMenamin, who represents the order in Portland, Ore., said Moyneur made allegations against Atherton to the head of the Servite order in Buena Park in 1990. McMenamin said Servite officials reacted promptly to the allegations and transferred the brother to a New Mexico facility for clergy, where he underwent about five months of counseling. McMenamin said the transfer followed the religious order's policy when handling such allegations.

Atherton was then transferred to Portland, where he continues to be regularly supervised and undergoes psychological counseling while he works in the business office of the Sanctuary of Our Sorrowful Mother, McMenamin said.

The three lawsuits, which are being treated separately but were filed together about two months ago, seek unspecified damages from Atherton, the religious order and Servite High School under a California statute that allows adults to pursue civil claims within three years after they remember their abuse, Anderson said.

Anderson said the criminal statute of limitations has run out for the men he represents.

Since the middle 1980s, there has been a rise in lawsuits filed by people who claim to have repressed memories of childhood abuse, said John Cleary, the general counsel of Church Mutual Insurance Co. in Merill, Wis., which insures about 60,000 churches of various denominations nationwide.

The realm of repressed memories is murky, said Curt Sandman, a UC Irvine professor of psychiatry and psychological biology who is an expert on memory.

"It is extremely difficult to sort memory from fact," Sandman said. "The greatest enemy to a good memory is time. With time, memories erode. Painful memories undergo different kinds of erosion. Some people change them to make them more benign. Some people try to repress them." Sandman said that sometimes it is difficult to sort out whether one can remember the event or the reaction to the event.

While the number of suits has risen, the number of priests being reported to authorities for alleged molestation has also increased.

From 1982 to 1992, there were about 400 priests reported to authorities nationwide, according to New Orleans-based author and journalist Jason Berry, who studied such cases for several years for his book "Lead Us Not Into Temptation."

Church officials in Orange County have also investigated such allegations. In January, Father Richard T. Coughlin was suspended from his priestly duties and told to sever all ties with a boys chorus he founded and directed after five men told the Diocese of Orange that he molested them when they were youths. Coughlin has denied any wrongdoing.

The Diocese of Orange has also settled at least two lawsuits since 1988 filed by people who claimed to have been molested by priests.

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