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Predators on Staff in '70s, Suit Alleges

Mater Dei students were 'an ongoing supply of victims,' according to a civil action filed against the Orange and Los Angeles dioceses.

July 23, 2003|William Lobdell and David Reyes | Times Staff Writers

A lawsuit filed in Orange County Superior Court on Tuesday alleges that several pedophiles on the staff of Mater Dei High School, one of the nation's largest parochial schools, systematically preyed on students in the 1970s.

Two men accused in the suit were for decades among the county's recognized Catholic educators: Michael "Father Hollywood" Harris and John Merino, a lay employee. Harris was principal at Mater Dei and Santa Margarita high schools. Merino began at Mater Dei in 1956 and served in various positions, including vice principal; he has since retired. Neither has been charged criminally and so are not affected by a recent Supreme Court ruling that prevented the state from suspending the statute of limitations in criminal molestation cases.

Pablo Espinoza, 42, who lives in Madrid, was able to sue because of a new state law that lifts the statute of limitations for molestation-related civil suits against institutions for this year. Espinoza's lawsuit identifies Harris and Merino but does not name them as defendants. The complaint alleges that Harris, Merino and others molested Espinoza. The lawsuit also alleges that unnamed school officials failed to protect the plaintiff, who was 15 to 16 at the time.

Timothy C. Hale, Espinoza's Santa Barbara attorney, said his client left Mater Dei in 1977 for St. Anthony's Seminary to escape the abuse. But he said Espinoza experienced more abuse at the Santa Barbara boarding school, which has since closed. Espinoza filed a similar lawsuit in Santa Barbara County Superior Court on Thursday against the religious order that ran the school.

The Los Angeles and Orange diocese paid $5.2 million to a victim to settle molestation claims against Harris in 2001. During litigation, four others stepped forward to say Harris abused them, though they weren't parties in the suit. As part of the settlement, Harris agreed to be removed from the priesthood.

Neither Harris nor Merino could be reached for comment. Shirl Giacomi, a spokeswoman for the diocese in Orange, said officials had not seen the lawsuit but considered the allegations "very serious."

The Orange and Los Angeles dioceses are defendants in the Espinoza suit because the Santa Ana school was under the jurisdiction of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles until the Diocese of Orange was formed in 1976.

According to Hale, Espinoza said that when he was a student, he was too afraid to tell anyone what was happening.

"Pablo's story is unlike anything I've ever heard," Hale said.

According to the lawsuit, Espinoza attended Mater Dei from 1975 to 1977. The lawsuit alleges that before, during and after this time, many Mater Dei students "served as an ongoing supply of victims" for the pedophiles who worked at, volunteered and visited the school.

Beginning at age 15, Harris, Merino and 10 others repeatedly abused Espinoza on and off campus, the lawsuit says.

After Merino retired, he frequented the Mater Dei campus as a volunteer, helping produce and direct school plays and annual musicals. School officials declined to comment.

John Manly, a lawyer in the $5.2-million settlement case who also filed three lawsuits involving teachers or priests at Mater Dei, said he believes there are now six people accused of sexual abuse who worked at the school from 1974 to 1987.

"There needs to be an independent investigation in what appears to be the widespread sexual molestation at the high school," said Manly, a Mater Dei graduate who is not connected with Espinoza's suit.

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