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Costa Mesa Priest Removed for '81 Abuse Allegation

Religion: A policeman said he saw Father Jerome Henson molest a boy, 13, in a Northern California cemetery. The cleric's superior then transferred him.

April 16, 2002|WILLIAM LOBDELL | TIMES STAFF WRITER

An Orange County priest is on paid leave after being accused of molesting a youth 21 years ago, allegations that include an account by a police witness at the time.

The police report on Father Jerome Henson includes comments from his superior at his former Northern California parish, saying he had been suspicious of the Roman Catholic priest's relationship with some boys and would immediately move him to another parish.

Henson, pastor of St. John the Baptist Church in Costa Mesa, is now one of four Orange County priests to be removed from their parishes in recent months over allegations of molesting minors.

Diocese of Orange officials say their 4 1/2-month inquiry into the Henson case has been hampered by their inability to interview the alleged victim, who is now 34 and serving time at California State Prison, Solano.

Henson, a priest from the Dominican order, has denied the allegations. Announcements this year about the accusations in church bulletins at his last three parishes have sparked no additional allegations, church officials said.

Diocesan officials in Orange said they were first informed of the allegations in October, when attorneys for the accuser, a former altar boy, gave them the 1981 police report along with a letter outlining other alleged molestations. The Orange Diocese put Henson on leave in November. Full details of the case didn't emerge until recently.

In the 1981 report, a police sergeant in the Northern California community of Benicia said that while driving by a cemetery there, he saw the boy, then 13, in a compromising position with the priest.

"This is a particularly egregious case because the conduct was actually observed by the police," said David Drivon, an attorney for the accuser.

In the report, the Benicia sergeant said the suspect had committed "lewd acts with a 13-year-old juvenile." He also called the boy an "apparent willing participant," although that would not absolve the adult of a crime.

The sergeant, who recognized the boy as a soccer player he coached and knew Henson as a priest in his parish, later wrote up the report. The sergeant, now retired, couldn't be reached for comment to explain why he didn't stop at the scene.

In a follow-up interview at his home five days after the incident, the boy denied anything improper had happened.

Henson lawyer Gary Moorhead said the priest remembers cleaning up grave sites with the boy but "adamantly denies that any inappropriate contact happened."

In the police report, the unnamed cleric who was Henson's superior at St. Dominic Church in Benicia said he "has suspected [Henson] may have been too involved with different young boys" and that he would try to get the priest "transferred out of the community as soon as possible and also have his assignments changed so that [Henson] will be working with adults and not with so many boys."

Later in the same afternoon that police first told the superior of the case, he called police back and said "arrangements were made today to immediately transfer" Henson to a parish in Reno, the report stated.

The accuser's attorney said he is in prison for residential burglary and had served time for manslaughter when, trying to flee police, he crashed into another car and killed a passenger.

In addition to the four priests in Orange County swept into the nation's mushrooming sex scandal involving Roman Catholic clerics, the Archdiocese of Los Angeles has dismissed 11 priests and identified other suspected abusers no longer in the priesthood or dead.

When the Diocese of Orange hired Henson in 1983, church officials said there was nothing in the priest's personnel file to indicate a troubled past.

Diocesan officials also say there have been no allegations against Henson since he arrived. He worked at St. Angela Merici Church in Brea and St. Anthony Claret Church in Anaheim before becoming pastor at St. John the Baptist in 1996.

Officials with the Western Province of Dominicans, Henson's order, based in the Diocese of Sacramento, could not be reached for comment Monday.

The accuser's attorney said he had considered Henson "a role model, spiritual advisor and father figure" who took him on outings and camping trips. In trouble with the law, the boy did community service projects at the church, where he alleged that Henson first molested him.

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