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E-Mails ID Priest Suspected of Abuse

Scandal: The L.A. archdiocese had claimed that the description given by the accuser, who had forgotten the cleric's name, was insufficient.

April 10, 2002|WILLIAM LOBDELL | TIMES STAFF WRITER

E-mail exchanges between Archdiocese of Los Angeles attorneys show that church officials had a good idea of the identity of a priest accused of molestation in a lawsuit, although they told the plaintiff's attorney and the media that the accuser had given them too little information to figure out who it was.

Lori Haigh of San Francisco was paid $1.2 million last week to settle allegations that she was molested 20 years ago by Father John Lenihan in Orange County and an unidentified priest from a San Pedro Roman Catholic parish.

She also made accusations that two other Orange County priests ignored her pleas for help and that one of them also molested her.

Lenihan has neither admitted to nor denied the accusation; the other two Orange County priests say they never met her.

Haigh, who could not remember the name of the San Pedro priest, gave diocesan officials a number of details about him, including a general physical description and the year she thought he had transferred to Southern California from Ireland. She said the priest, who was a friend of Lenihan, sexually abused her after they had dinner at a coffee shop.

In the archdiocese's press release on the day of the April 1 settlement, officials said that "discussions between plaintiff's counsel and the Archdiocese of Los Angeles did not yield specific enough information to identify this person or confirm whether the events described by Ms. Haigh ever occurred."

But in the e-mails, Charles Goldberg, an attorney for the archdiocese, wrote: "We think we know who he is, but, at this moment, are not absolutely certain who it is. Further, we have never indicated to [Haigh's attorney Katherine K. Freberg] that we know who he is although she has asked repeatedly."

All three e-mails name the priest, who is listed as being on sick leave with the archdiocese. The Times is not publishing his name because Haigh has not formally accused him by name and he could not be reached for comment.

"I should be cynical by now, but I'm shocked," Freberg said. "They really portrayed Lori as a liar, once again making the victim the bad guy" by saying she had provided too little information. She said that she and Haigh are discussing further legal action against the archdiocese.

Said Freberg, "At the very least, we want an apology, and we may have to file a lawsuit again. I'm not going to let her be victimized again."

Archdiocese spokesman Tod Tamberg said Freberg wasn't told about the priest because church investigators weren't certain they had the right man.

He said he didn't know if the archdiocese had relayed its suspicions to the police.

In one of the e-mails, attorney John McNicholas wrote, "It is possible that [the priest] could have fit that description 20 years ago. I repeat possible. He told me very forcefully that he was never involved with minors."

The archdiocese press release said only that the church "reported the allegations from Ms. Haigh's complaint to the Los Angeles Police Department."

LAPD sex-crimes detectives said they have "never heard" of the priest named in the e-mails.

On Tuesday, Tamberg said he would not comment specifically on the e-mails because they are "stolen property."

He also said the archdiocese would not reveal whether the suspected priest ever worked in San Pedro.

The attorneys for the archdiocese did not return calls.

Freberg said she was asked by archdiocese attorneys to help them find the unnamed priest so they could report him to police. She said she now believes they wanted the information for "damage control."

"You often see games played in litigation," she said. "But this goes beyond litigation games. This goes to morals and doing the right thing."

The e-mails became public when an anonymous source leaked them to KFI-AM (640) and radio station officials forwarded them to The Times. The FBI is investigating whether the e-mails were stolen.

Because the lawsuit, filed in December, hadn't entered the formal discovery process, the archdiocese broke no legal rules by not turning over the priest's name.

But an expert contacted by The Times found its tactics morally problematic.

"This is deeply troubling, to say the least," said Debra Rhode, a law professor and director of the Teck Center on Legal Ethics at Stanford University.

"I think a plaintiff in these circumstances has a justifiable interest" in having the accused identified to protect other potential victims. "And they sat on that information."

*

Times staff writer Richard Winton contributed to this report.

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