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COLUMN ONE

Rising Above a Scandal

At a Dana Point church plagued by allegations of priestly abuse, parishioners say their Catholicism has grown stronger.

October 03, 2002|WILLIAM LOBDELL and CHRISTINE HANLEY | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

In a year of scandal, few Catholic congregations have been tested as severely as the 5,000 families of St. Edward Church in Dana Point.

Their charismatic pastor was ousted after admitting several affairs with women. Later, the church paid $1.2 million to settle allegations that he impregnated a 16-year-old girl in the early 1980s and paid for her abortion.

There was more: A beloved senior priest was removed amid allegations that he sexually abused a teenage boy two decades ago. A former parish priest admitted having done the same. Still another was accused of molestation.

In the latest devastating disclosure from a buried past, authorities last week arrested a former priest from St. Edward on charges that, in the early 1970s, he sexually abused and impregnated a teenage girl who sang in the church choir.

Some feared this spiritual water torture would cause an exodus to other parishes or even out of the Roman Catholic Church. But many in the parish say they emerged from their trial of faith more committed than ever. They stopped idolizing the men behind the altar, they say, and refocused their adoration on the figure nailed to the cross.

Donations to St. Edward have risen 6% in the past year. The introductory class for prospective converts, held earlier this month, was packed with more than 40 seekers, a record number. The ranks of youth group leaders nearly doubled this year to 41.

The wounded parish has survived and in some ways thrived, thanks to a tight-knit group of congregants who stubbornly kept showing up on Sundays no matter how they felt. They attended venting sessions convened by diocesan officials and privately struggled to reconnect to the roots of their faith. Many parishioners say their healing was aided by an abundance of prayer and grace.

"We were bleeding, and that wound is starting to cover over," said Suzanne Russell, a 72-year-old grandmother from Dana Point who has attended the church for 10 years. "But we'll never be the same."

St. Edward sits on nine hilltop acres overlooking Dana Point Harbor. Large windows behind the altar afford a 180-degree view of a Pacific Ocean dotted with sails. Each Fourth of July, young families picnic on the hilltop at dusk, listen to patriotic music and watch fireworks.

In 1995, Father John Lenihan became only the second head priest in St. Edward's 34-year history. He was a charismatic Irishman, at ease before crowds though awkward in small groups.

In his first announcement to the congregation, he admitted that he had had an inappropriate relationship with a young woman in the late 1970s. But, he said, that part of his life was behind him.

During the next six years, St. Edward grew from 2,000 families to almost 5,000, fueled by a building boom in south Orange County, a new $6-million church building and Lenihan's infectious enthusiasm.

The growth was so explosive--in membership, in school enrollment, in ministries--that an $8-million fund-raising campaign was launched in 1999 to double the school's size, buy several acres of adjacent land and build a community center.

Months before the $4.9-million school expansion was completed, the congregation suffered the first of the shocks that would test its faith.

Three days after the Sept. 11 terrorists attacks, Los Angeles Times columnist Steve Lopez wrote about an Orange County priest, identified only as Father X, who admitted having molested a teenage girl and having had at least four affairs over the years with women. When church officials confronted him, Lenihan acknowledged that he was the priest in question. He was fired by Bishop Tod D. Brown of the Diocese of Orange.

"That initial stab was the worst," said Donna Couch, director of the convert program at the church for the past 18 years. "When you work with these [priests], you always become their cheerleaders. The dose of reality was difficult."

The immediate reaction to the news divided the congregation. One group wanted to circulate petitions calling for Brown to keep Lenihan at St. Edward. The priest, they said, had been an excellent pastor and should be forgiven for his mistakes. Another group threatened a petition drive of its own, to prevent Lenihan from returning.

"It was painful and embarrassing and strange and strained," said Diane Wetherbee, a member of the church for eight years.

Some parishioners, who were taught to hold priests in godlike awe, had a particularly difficult time with the news.

"Priests were put on such a high pedestal," said Margie Bushaw, a 48-year-old Laguna Niguel resident. "You just looked at them differently. I think that might have been my biggest problem."

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