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'I Was in This Alone'

Lori Haigh's life spiraled downward after repeated sexual abuse by a Catholic priest in Orange County, while she says other clerics ignored her pleas for help.

April 09, 2002|WILLIAM LOBDELL | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Lori Haigh couldn't stand the voice of Father John Lenihan any longer. So she sat among the congregants in the parish hall and stabbed a pencil into her left thigh again and again, until blood began to flow.

The 16-year-old was hoping someone at St. Norbert Church in Orange would ask her what was wrong. That's when she would blurt it all out:

Father John was molesting me. Three, four, five times a week for the past two years. He got me pregnant and then paid for the abortion. He set me up with another priest.

But no one asked.

It took Haigh 20 years and a million-dollar lawsuit to be noticed.

The dioceses of Los Angeles and Orange last week agreed to pay her $1.2 million to settle her accusations against Lenihan and the church. Though Lenihan neither admitted nor denied the allegations involving Haigh, he previously admitted to molesting another teenage girl and having several sexual relationships with adult women. He agreed last month to be removed from the priesthood.

Bishop Tod D. Brown of Orange County last week acknowledged that Haigh had been molested, saying, "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."

The sexual abuse scandal now racking the U.S. Roman Catholic Church has many victims. But Lori Haigh stands apart on several grounds. The allegations that led to the settlement are among the most serious yet leveled against a priest. And while many victims contend that molestations haunted them for years, Haigh is among the few willing to detail how her life spiraled downward after repeated sexual abuse, while the church ignored her complaints.

She is now a San Francisco mother who appears to lead an enviable life as a video entrepreneur and songwriter.

But she says that she hates to wear dresses because they make her feel vulnerable--the same way she felt when Lenihan allegedly would take her in his silver Mercury Monarch and park on deserted roads. She picks at the skin around her fingernails, leaving them bloody, saying it distracts her from bad thoughts. She says she has tried to commit suicide more than 10 times, beginning at 16, when Lenihan allegedly got her pregnant.

Haigh grew up in a devoutly Catholic family. Her parents, Jane and Faust Capobianco, sent her to parochial school near their home in Villa Park, an affluent community in Orange County. The family attended Mass each Sunday at the Holy Family Cathedral in Orange.

Haigh played the guitar along with two nuns at her school, a talent that caught the eye of a 32-year-old priest from Ireland, Father Lenihan. He asked the 14-year-old to be part of the band at his "rock 'n' roll" Mass on Sunday evenings at St. Norbert Church in Orange.

"He showed a big interest in me," she said. "I felt special, like I was selected out of the crowd to be his confidant."

She was too young to drive, so Lenihan volunteered to pick her up at her home. Her parents said they were happy that a popular priest had taken an interest in their daughter's life.

"You look to them for guidance," said her father, a retired doctor now living in Tennessee. "You value the association."

Haigh said Lenihan almost immediately began hugging and kissing her in the car.

"I'd never kissed a boy before," she said. "It seemed like a safe situation. I knew he would never tell." And she did not imagine it would go further.

But it did, first to oral sex, then intercourse. Haigh said the molestations continued regularly until she was 17.

She said she didn't make him stop because, in some ways, he was her first love. He also gave her freedom: He had a car, and she could stay out late with him.

Giving Signs That She Needed Help

Haigh's parents didn't particularly like her friends from Villa Park High School, where she had recently transferred, so they encouraged her involvement with the parish and Father John.

Classmate Andrea Lamacki once watched Lenihan stare at Haigh from the rectory window and run out into the church parking lot to give her an expensive harmonica.

"I remember thinking that was odd, it wasn't right," Lamacki said.

Haigh started to give signs--both subtle and obvious--that she needed help. Her grades, normally A's, plummeted. She ditched classes. She wore an asymmetrical punk haircut and "Dead Kennedys" T-shirts.

Another classmate, Shannon Moser, remembers Haigh in tears, talking on the phone in a mutual friend's bedroom. When Moser asked another friend what was wrong, she was told that Father John had gotten Haigh pregnant and was telling her to get an abortion. Moser didn't believe the story until Haigh held up the phone and she recognized Lenihan's distinctive Irish brogue.

Haigh went to a Planned Parenthood clinic for the abortion.

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