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O.C. Priest Named in Abuse Suit

Courts: Filing against the Costa Mesa cleric was made in Northern California. Allegations from 21 years ago are supported by a policeman's account.

April 24, 2002|WILLIAM LOBDELL | TIMES STAFF WRITER

A lawsuit filed in a Northern California court Tuesday accuses a Costa Mesa priest of molesting an adolescent boy 21 years ago and uses an eyewitness police account of one incident to corroborate the allegations.

Father Jerome Henson, pastor of St. John the Baptist Church in Costa Mesa, has been on paid administrative leave since November, shortly after the allegations of sexual abuse surfaced in a letter from the accuser's attorney.

Gary Moorhead, the priest's lawyer, said that he hasn't seen the suit, filed in Solano County Superior Court, but that Henson denies any inappropriate conduct. Henson is a Dominican priest who served in the early 1980s at St. Dominic Church in Benicia, Calif.

The Diocese of Orange, which says it wasn't informed of any incidents in Henson's past when he was hired in 1983, wasn't named in the suit.

Henson and his Dominican order were among the "John Does" listed as defendants in the complaint, attorney Laurence E. Drivon said. In civil lawsuits, state law mandates that clergy and religious institutions be labeled "John Does" until evidence is provided to the court.

John Jacobs, in a recent phone interview from California State Prison, Solano, said he brought the suit seeking unspecified damages because "I needed to deal with my past and stop feeling like a victim all the time."

Jacobs, 34, is serving a 14-year sentence for burglary. He served previous sentences for burglary and vehicular manslaughter.

All the crimes, Jacobs said, were the result of his drug addiction.

Jacobs said he was a straight-A student, Boy Scout and goalie on his youth soccer team before the alleged sexual abuse began when he was 12. He said Henson molested him on a camping trip to Lake Tahoe, inside the church and in the parish cemetery.

'Now I Know What Drove Me'

His relationship with Henson "destroyed my life," Jacobs said. "I'm not trying to use what happened to me as an excuse. But at least now, I know what drove me."

The case has been bolstered by a 1981 police report written by a Benicia officer who drove past the city's cemetery and saw Jacobs, then 13, in a compromising position with the priest.

In his report, the Benicia sergeant said the priest had committed "lewd acts with a 13-year-old juvenile."

He also called the boy an "apparent willing participant," a statement that Jacobs says sickens him.

"He witnessed what had happened, and he just drove away," Jacobs said.

The sergeant, who recognized Jacobs 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 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 that anything improper had happened.

Jacobs said he was afraid and ashamed at what had happened and, after a few moments with the detective, ran to his bedroom in tears.

The police report also says that an unnamed cleric, who was Henson's superior at the parish, said that he suspected Henson had gotten too involved with young boys and that he would 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."

Henson immediately was moved to a Reno parish.

Officials with the Western Province of Dominicans, Henson's order, could not be reached for comment Tuesday.

Jacobs said both the Catholic parish and his hometown police department did nothing to protect a 13-year-old boy from sexual abuse.

"I'm not trying to sound paranoid" but there was a cover-up, he said.

Announcements about the accusations placed this year in church bulletins at Henson's last three parishes in Orange County have resulted in no additional allegations, church officials said.

Henson is the fourth Orange County priest to be swept up in the nationwide sex scandal involving Roman Catholic clerics.

The Archdiocese of Los Angeles has dismissed 11 priests and identified other suspected abusers who are no longer in the priesthood or are dead.

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