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Priest Scandal Echoes Family's Decade of Pain

Crime: Parents learned that a trusted cleric had molested four of their sons. They have pursued changes in church policies on sex abuse.

June 17, 2002|BETH SHUSTER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Most of the nation has been shocked by this year's revelations of priest sex abuse in the Roman Catholic Church. Bill and Judy weren't.

The east San Fernando Valley couple has lived with the consequences of Father Richard Allen Henry's betrayal for more than a decade. He was a close family friend who earned the trust of their sons. Then he molested four of them one by one. The parents responded by becoming more active in their church and trying to keep Henry from going to prison.

The family's experience is a textbook case in the pain errant priests and an overly protective church have caused. Some of this was on display in Dallas last week when America's Catholic bishops, debating a new child-abuse policy, were addressed by victims whose hurt and confusion echoed Bill's and Judy's.

The case of Father Richard Allen Henry resonates because it involved individuals who are still enmeshed in the abuse crisis, which has put more than 50 current and former Los Angeles archdiocese priests under suspicion.

The key figures are:

* Cardinal Roger M. Mahony and his top representatives, who went to great lengths to protect Father Henry. The archdiocese paid his $30,000 bail and therapy bills and kept his identity secret by never announcing his departure from the parish. The archdiocese also made little effort to remove Henry from the priesthood.

* Bill and Judy, who went on to become founding members of Mahony's Sexual Abuse Misconduct Board, which reviews cases involving clergy abuse. The parents, who are still members of the board, say that their activism was fueled by a desire to ensure that no more children would be abused by priests. Their last names are being withheld under a Times policy of protecting the identities of victims of sexual abuse.

* Los Angeles County Dist. Atty. Steve Cooley, then a supervising prosecutor, who attended Henry's court hearings and successfully pushed for a maximum eight-year prison sentence. Today Cooley decides whether to file charges on complaints of clergy abuse.

* Henry's lawyer, Donald Steier, who represents most of the former and current priests who are under investigation.

Henry, who lives in Maryland, is among the few priests in the three-county Los Angeles archdiocese to be convicted of child molestation. (The archdiocese has identified only one other convicted priest: a man who was placed on 10 years probation and committed to a state mental hospital for two years in 1983.)

Bill and Judy's ordeal began on a late summer evening in 1991 when the police arrived at their door in Sunland. The big family--including four daughters, four adopted children and three foster children--were outside taking wedding photos of one daughter and her husband.

The police told them the priest had been molesting several of their children.

"We didn't believe it," Bill said.

*

A Continuing Pattern

Father Henry was the 40-year-old associate pastor at Bill and Judy's church, Holy Redeemer in Montrose, when he befriended the family in 1985. He soon began taking the boys to baseball games and he attended family barbecues and pool parties. He baby-sat while Judy ran errands. And then, a few months after meeting the family, he began abusing their oldest son, an altar boy.

For three years, Henry molested the boy in church, at the rectory and on trips to San Diego and Washington, D.C.

When that boy reached puberty, the priest turned his attention to a younger sibling. Then a younger one. The pattern continued even after Henry was reassigned from Holy Redeemer to another church.

Finally, after six years, one of the younger boys told his biological parents during a weekend visit. They told a nurse at a mental health clinic who alerted authorities.

Police interviewed all 11 children that night in 1991. The children told police they were scared that the family would be torn apart; two of the boys Henry was accused of abusing were foster children who had been previously abused.

Bill had grown up at Holy Redeemer as an altar boy. The family attended Mass regularly. Several of the children went to Catholic school. Bill and Judy loved a house full of friends and family. They were committed to helping children in need.

"And now," Judy said, "we hear this."

Archdiocese officials say that Henry confessed hours after the police came to Bill and Judy's home. He was arrested by Los Angeles police and booked into County Jail.

His first visitor was Cardinal Mahony. Henry had asked to see him.

"He wanted to apologize for what he had done and all the harm he had done to these boys," the cardinal said recently. "He was quite subdued."

Within weeks the family returned to Holy Redeemer. Henry had been gone since 1986, when he was transferred to Our Lady of the Rosary in Paramount. The church never formally told parishioners at either church about Henry's arrest--not even after the parents started sharing their story.

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