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Priest Sues Woman Over Sex Accusations

Courts: Msgr. Lawrence J. Baird of the Orange diocese follows through with demand that Lori Haigh retract charges.

April 17, 2002|WILLIAM LOBDELL | TIMES STAFF WRITER

A top priest with the Roman Catholic Diocese of Orange filed a slander suit Friday against a San Francisco woman who alleged he made sexual advances.

Diocesan officials said Tuesday they had been notified of the lawsuit but were not a part of it.

Lori Haigh, 37, made her comments about Msgr. Lawrence J. Baird this month after being paid $1.2 million by the Orange and Los Angeles dioceses to settle molestation allegations against Father John Lenihan.

She accused Lenihan of impregnating her at 16 and paying for her abortion.

She accused Baird, now a monsignor and spokesman for the diocese, of rubbing himself against her and kissing her on the lips in an office at Holy Family Cathedral in Orange 20 years ago.

She also alleged that Baird never told his superiors of the accusations against Lenihan, an accusation she leveled against another high-ranking priest, Msgr. John Urell.

On the day of the April 1 settlement, Baird held a news conference at diocesan headquarters to deny that he had ever met Haigh or had any sexual allegation leveled against him in his career.

"I state unequivocally that I have no awareness of ever having met or spoken with this person in my life and have absolutely no idea who Miss Haigh is," Baird said at the time.

"I have 100% memory that I have never made any inappropriate contact with any person during my 33 years as a priest."

He added that if she didn't immediately retract her statement, he would file suit.

His attorney, Robert C. Baker, said Baird would drop his lawsuit if Haigh recanted.

"If she retracts, it's over," said Baker, a Los Angeles attorney who represented O.J. Simpson in his civil trial. "If not, it's time to let a jury decide."

The slander suit is another twist in the Catholic priest sex scandal that has gripped the nation over the last four months. Hundreds of victims have come forward to make accusations against priests--both in court and privately to church officials--but Baird has taken he rare step of fighting in court.

A few days after Baird's news conference, Haigh passed a lie-detector test in an attempt to prove her allegations. In addition, another woman complained to the diocese that Baird had made sexual advances toward her.

Baker said lie-detector results are easily manipulated, and inadmissible in court.

"It's worthless," said Baker, adding Baird wouldn't be taking a polygraph test for the same reason.

Haigh said she wasn't surprised by the lawsuit.

"I understand he's got his reputation and career to protect," she said. "I've got peace of mind knowing what I said happened, really happened."

Baird has one of the highest profiles of any priest in the Orange diocese. He is its chief spokesman, pastor of a popular Balboa Island parish and a key liaison between the local business community and the church.

His parishioners at St. John Vianney Chapel are currently holding a rosary prayer service in his support for nine consecutive days.

Haigh's attorney, Katherine K. Freberg, said she sent a letter to the two dioceses after hearing Baird's April 1 comments and reading about e-mail exchanges indicating that the Los Angeles archdiocese might have identified an unnamed priest accused of molestation by Haigh in the lawsuit, though they kept the information from Freberg.

In it, Freberg said Haigh demanded an additional $950,000 in damages, wanted admissions from Baird and Urell that she was telling the truth, and apologies from Bishop of Orange Tod D. Brown and Cardinal Roger M. Mahony.

She said the Orange diocese has rejected the claim, but she hadn't heard from the archdiocese.

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