The Catholic Church disclosed Monday that it has paid $5.2 million and made significant changes in the way it handles allegations of sexual abuse to settle a lawsuit alleging that a prominent Orange County priest and onetime high school principal molested one of his students.
The agreement between the Los Angeles and Orange dioceses and Ryan DiMaria of Laguna Hills appears to be the largest publicly disclosed payout of its kind to an individual in church history, experts said. Under the new guidelines, the dioceses have agreed to create an independent victim assistance program for youths who say they have been molested.
Orange County Superior Court Judge James Gray also ordered the dioceses to issue public apologies to DiMaria and four other teenage boys who claimed Msgr. Michael A. Harris molested them.
Harris, nicknamed "Father Hollywood" in the Orange County Catholic community because of his charisma and good looks, agreed under the settlement to apply to the Vatican to be removed from the priesthood. But in a statement, he steadfastly denied that he molested anyone and accused church leaders of settling the case "for their own business reasons."
Diocese of Orange Bishop Tod D. Brown issued a statement Monday expressing "profound sorrow" for the five accusers and saluting their courage for coming forward.
"Although Michael Harris continues to deny any wrongdoing, the Diocese of Orange has grave doubts about his innocence in these matters, taking into consideration the number of complaints made against him, the similarity of those complaints and the apparent sincerity of the persons making these statements," Brown said.
Tod Tamberg, spokesman for the Los Angeles archdiocese, said officials there are still in communication with DiMaria's attorney over the final wording of an upcoming public apology.
"Sexual abuse is a serious sin. It devastates its victims physically, emotionally and spiritually," the archdiocese said in a statement. ". . . Such activity simply will not be tolerated in our church."
The church has been tarnished over the past two decades by a string of allegations of molestations by priests.
Experts said the church is increasingly leery about taking cases to trial after juries in recent years ordered large damage awards. In 1997, for example, a Dallas jury ordered the church to pay $119 million to 11 men who were allegedly molested as altar boys. An out-of-court settlement was later reached for $23 million.
Sylvia Demarest, who represented the plaintiffs in that trial, said the DiMaria case appears to be the biggest payout for a single victim and is also significant because it was agreed to before the case came to trial. She and other experts said the settlement breaks new ground because of the regulations it establishes for how the church deals with future cases.
Church officials continued to deny a central charge contained in the DiMaria lawsuit: That the dioceses were aware of sex allegations while Harris was principal of Mater Dei High School in Santa Ana, an Orange County social and athletic powerhouse, but still picked the priest in 1987 to head their new showcase Santa Margarita High School in southern Orange County.
It was not until 1994 that the Orange County diocese placed the principal on administrative leave and took the unusual step of prohibiting him from working as a priest. Harris has since started a business that builds low-income housing with the help of government funds. Some of Orange County's most prominent businessmen, including developer William Lyon and philanthropist Roger Kirwan, serve on his board of directors.
DiMaria's attorney, Katherine Freberg, said the size of the settlement should be viewed as an admission of guilt by the church, and that it represents an acknowledgment of its failure to take action as soon as it learned of the accusations.
The district attorney's office reviewed DiMaria's accusations last year but found insufficient evidence to file criminal charges against Harris.
Harris said in a statement that he did nothing wrong: "Monsignor Harris is extremely proud of his work with high school students and counts hundreds of them [as] close friends and supporters."
DiMaria, now 28, said in an interview that he hoped the settlement will send a message to the Catholic Church and lead to reforms in the way officials deal with molestation accusations.
"I just wanted to bring some recognition that these things happened and you can't just turn a blind eye to them," said DiMaria, who recently took the bar exam and plans to become a tax attorney. "The lawsuit was always about making a change and slowing it down or stopping it."
DiMaria said Harris molested him 1991, and that at first, he blamed himself. He said he spent five years battling depression and thoughts of suicide. He finally told his family five years after he claims Harris molested him. His parents immediately confronted church officials, who they said tried to cover it up.