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Mission Viejo Priest Removed on 1978 Claim

Scandal: St. Kilian parishioners stunned at announcement of abuse investigation against Father Tom Naughton.

April 14, 2002|JACK LEONARD | TIMES STAFF WRITER

A Jesuit priest assigned to a Mission Viejo Catholic church has been removed temporarily from his duties while church officials investigate a claim that he molested a child more than two decades ago in Texas, diocesan officials said late Saturday.

Shocked parishioners at St. Kilian Church were notified of Father Tom Naughton's removal at the end of Mass on Saturday in a brief announcement by Father James P. Dunning, the parish priest.

Dunning told parishioners that Naughton had been accused of sexual misconduct in 1978, a parishioner said. Dunning could not be reached for comment Saturday.

"There was a stunned silence in the church," said Genevieve Hamm, a 20-year member of the church, who attended the Mass. Naughton, 68, is the third Orange County priest removed from his duties in recent months amid a nationwide sex-abuse scandal that has swept the Roman Catholic Church, leading to the dismissals of priests, the launching of criminal investigations and, in Boston, calls for the resignation of Cardinal Bernard F. Law.

Diocese of Orange officials said they were told of the allegation against Naughton by his superiors in the Society of Jesus, also known as the Jesuits, on April 5. The order is investigating the claim.

In the meantime, Naughton agreed to go on administrative leave in accordance with diocesan policy on dealing with sex-abuse allegations against priests, said diocesan spokeswoman Maria Schinderle.

Schinderle said she had not spoken with Naughton and did not know whether he denied the allegation or whether law enforcement officials had been notified about the claim. Naughton could not be reached for comment.

St. Kilian is one of three parishes served by Serra Catholic Elementary School in Rancho Santa Margarita, but there was no immediate indication that Naughton's duties involved the school.

Jesuits make up the largest religious order within the Catholic Church, with more than 21,000 members serving 112 nations. In the Bay Area, four Jesuits have been named as defendants in a Santa Clara County civil lawsuit alleging they sexually abused two mentally retarded men at Sacred Heart, a retreat overlooking the Santa Clara Valley. A criminal investigation also is underway.

Visiting Priest Was a Fixture at St. Kilian

Though a visiting priest at St. Kilian, Naughton was a regular fixture for years, saying morning Mass on weekdays and impressing parishioners with anecdotes about saints on their feast days.

"He's very dedicated, very knowledgeable," said parishioner Tom Brown, who recalled Naughton's compassion during the funeral last year for Brown's wife.

"It's really going to shake up the whole parish," Brown said. "The man was such a strong, caring guy. It just doesn't make any sense to me."

Last month, Father Michael Pecharich was asked to leave his 12-year position at San Francisco Solano Church in Rancho Santa Margarita after he admitted molesting a teenage boy 19 years ago.

In August, the diocese paid $5.2million to settle molestation charges brought by one alleged victim against Msgr. Michael Harris, a popular principal at Santa Margarita Catholic High School in Rancho Santa Margarita. The diocese has asked Vatican officials to remove Harris from the priesthood as part of the settlement and agreed, along with the diocese of Los Angeles, to fire any priests with a history of child molestation.

In September, John Lenihan was removed as pastor of St. Edward Church in Dana Point after he, under the pseudonym "Father X," revealed to a Los Angeles Times columnist that he had had several sexual relationships. In 1991, Lenihan admitted to church officials that he sexually abused a teenage girl in the 1970s. The church paid the victim $25,000 to Mary Grant to settle her lawsuit.

Recent Settlement Cost Dioceses $1.2 Million

Earlier this month, the dioceses of Los Angeles and Orange paid $1.2million to a 37-year-old woman who alleged in a lawsuit that Lenihan i molested her as a teenager, impregnated her and paid for her abortion.

The Times reported in March that six to 12 priests had been dismissed by Cardinal Roger M. Mahony in February for past sexual abuse of minors. Mahony, under growing pressure to reveal details about the cases, has said only that "a few" priests, almost all of them retired, were involved.

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