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Abuse Settlement Recipient Asks Dismissal of Priest's Slander Suit

The San Francisco woman says the Orange County cleric's litigation is an attempt to silence and punish her for having spoken out.

November 07, 2002|Phil Willon and William Lobdell | Times Staff Writers

A San Francisco woman who received a $1.2-million sexual abuse settlement from the Roman Catholic Church this year filed a motion Wednesday asking a judge to throw out a slander lawsuit brought by a high-ranking Orange County priest.

Lori Haigh, 38, filed a motion in San Francisco Superior Court calling the defamation suit by Msgr. Lawrence J. Baird of the Diocese of Orange a groundless "scare tactic" designed to silence and punish her for having spoken out.

She said Baird's legal action infringed on her right to free speech and violated California's law against "SLAPP" suits -- strategic lawsuits against public participation.

"Msgr. Baird's public humiliation of me and his lawsuit has reopened my old wounds and in many ways inflicted deeper ones," Haigh said in court papers. "I feel like I've been tarnished and shunned by God."

The state anti-SLAPP law is designed to keep developers, corporations and other institutions from filing frivolous suits solely to silence activists and whistle-blowers.

If a judge finds Baird's slander suit groundless, the legal action could be dismissed and he could be required to pay Haigh's legal fees.

Since the Catholic Church's sexual abuse scandal surfaced in January, at least five other priests in the country have filed slander suits against those accusing them of sexual misconduct.

Baird on Wednesday referred all inquiries to his attorney.

Baird, the chief spokesman for the Orange diocese and a key liaison between the church and the business community, filed suit against Haigh after she made allegations against him in announcing her settlement with the dioceses of Orange and Los Angeles in April.

The church settled her contention that, as a teenager, she was sexually molested by Father John Lenihan.

At a press conference concerning the settlement, Haigh said she had sought Baird's help 20 years ago while she was still being abused, and that he made sexual advances toward her.

Baird vigorously denied any misconduct and, at his own press conference, added that he had never even met with Haigh. Baird demanded that she retract her comments.

"I have 100% memory that I have never made any inappropriate contact with any person during my 33 years as a priest," Baird said at the time.

Until that day, Baird was an unnamed, peripheral character in Haigh's lawsuit, which alleged that Lenihan impregnated her at age 16 and then paid for her abortion.

Lenihan, now out of the priesthood, has not commented on the allegations.

Shortly after making her allegations against Baird, Haigh took a lie-detector test and "passed with flying colors," according to a court declaration filed by Dr. Edward I. Gelb, an L.A.-based forensic psychophysiologist and former president of the American Polygraph Assn. Gelb conducted the test.

Baird's attorney, Robert C. Baker of Los Angeles, said later that lie-detector tests are easy to manipulate, which is why they are not admissible as evidence in court. Because of that, Baird would not take a polygraph test, he said.

Mark Goldowitz of the California Anti-SLAPP Project in Berkeley, one of Haigh's attorneys in the case, said the state's anti-SLAPP law is designed to prevent powerful corporations or other entities from dragging activists and other citizens through expensive litigation solely to retaliate against them for exercising their 1st Amendment rights.

Goldowitz said Baird has no chance of winning his defamation lawsuit because, as a public figure, he is required to prove that Haigh knowingly made false allegations or that she showed reckless disregard as to whether the accusations were false.

"She clearly did not know or believe it was false. That's reflected by her lie-detector test," Goldowitz said.

Goldowitz said that if Baird wants to prove he has been wrongly accused, he should submit to a polygraph test.

"If it never happened, why not take a lie-detector test?" he said. "Even if the results are not conclusive, they should indicate something."

Judge A. James Robertson is scheduled to consider the motion Nov. 27.

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