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O.C. Priest Quits Over Past Affairs

Church: Pastor faces evaluation, reassignment after talking with Times columnist of several relationships.

September 25, 2001|WILLIAM LOBDELL | TIMES STAFF WRITER

A popular Roman Catholic priest was forced to resign last week from his Dana Point parish after admitting to having had affairs with women.

The allegations surfaced this month when Father John Lenihan, pastor of St. Edward Church, revealed to a Los Angeles Times columnist that he had had "several relationships. Four serious ones."

"Father John acknowledged that the information given was correct," Bishop Tod D. Brown wrote in a letter given to the congregation over the weekend. "This self-revelation is a cause of scandal to many in the Church, and it is a cause of great concern to me."

Lenihan, 55, had been disciplined before by the Diocese of Orange after admitting to a sexual relationship with a teenager in the late 1970s. The church settled a lawsuit brought by the alleged victim in 1991.

The priest told the St. Edward congregation about the relationship with the teenager when he began as pastor there in 1995.

The column by Steve Lopez, about the difficulties of priestly celibacy, referred to Lenihan only as "Father X." In the column, the priest talks about the sexual relationship with the teenager, which resulted in a court settlement, as well as about later relationships with women. The references to the settlement caught the attention of church officials, who contacted Lenihan and asked if he was Father X.

Brown said Lenihan will be sent for psychological evaluation and possible treatment before he is assigned other diocesan duties.

"I know this is very upsetting to parishioners," Brown said in an interview. "We need to have a grieving period . . . so we can heal."

In his statement, the bishop also talked about the good work done by Lenihan.

Lenihan could not be reached for comment.

"Father John's resignation does not negate any of the good that has been accomplished in the parish during his time as pastor," Brown said. "St. Edward's parish is a faith-filled, vibrant and marvelous community."

The woman who says she was the one molested by Lenihan expressed dissatisfaction with the church's handling of the matter.

"The diocese must take responsibility so he doesn't do this to any more people," said Mary Grant, who said she received a $25,000 settlement from the diocese. Now 38, she founded the Southern California chapter of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests. "I'm more concerned about whether he's resigned from molesting kids. It's scary to function in any pastoral way."

But parishioners know Lenihan as the man who helped raise more than $7 million for the church's expansion, doubled the size of the parochial school and had a kind word for everyone.

"He would do anything from directing traffic to raising funds. He's a most hospitable and warm man," said Diane Schmitt, a San Clemente resident who has attended the church since 1995. "Our parish is just devastated. You have no idea. I wish he had gone off and gotten married and came back as a deacon."

The Lenihan resignation comes shortly after the Orange and Los Angeles dioceses paid $5.2 million to settle a lawsuit that alleges a popular priest and principal at Santa Margarita Catholic High School in Rancho Santa Margarita molested a student. The church also apologized to four other alleged victims.

Brown said his action shows that the church will deal swiftly with priests who break their vows of celibacy.

Attached to Brown's letter was an unusual statement by Auxiliary Bishop Jaime Soto extolling the virtues of priestly celibacy.

"It is a demanding discipline that requires prayer and sacrifice from those who assume it," Soto wrote. "This long-standing tradition with the Church is very counter-cultural for a society that knows no limits or boundaries."

Schmitt said she appreciated the diocese's candor in the matter, saying that in the past, sensitive personnel decisions haven't been discussed with the congregants.

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