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Protesters Allege Past Abuse at Mater Dei

October 16, 2003|David Haldane | Times Staff Writer

Parents bringing their children to Mater Dei High School in Santa Ana for freshman orientation Wednesday night were greeted by nearly a dozen protesters at the front gate, alleging that the school has had a pattern of sexual abuse.

"There needs to be an acknowledgment that these things happened," said Joelle Casteix, a 1988 graduate of the school who organized the protest in response to what she described as repeated sexual molestations by a faculty member during her years as a student.

Though the teacher involved is no longer at the school, she said, administrators who knew about it at the time failed to act.

"They discussed it with me and said that I should keep my mouth shut," said Casteix, whose protest didn't stop parents from attending the orientation. "I believe it's very important that anyone considering sending their child to Mater Dei get the story."

A spokesman for Mater Dei refused to comment. But Father Joe Fenton, a spokesman for the Diocese of Orange, which oversees the school, denied that Mater Dei has fostered a pattern of sexual abuse. "Any allegation that the school was aware of has been reported to the proper authorities," he said.

Earlier this year, former student Pablo Espinoza, now 42, filed a lawsuit alleging that several pedophiles on the Mater Dei staff systematically preyed on students in the 1970s. One of the men accused in the suit -- Michael A. Harris, the school's principal from the late 1970s through much of the '80s -- was removed from the priesthood after allegations of sexual misconduct surfaced in 1994.

A former vice principal also named in the lawsuit has since retired.

John Manly, an attorney who participated in Wednesday's protest, has estimated that as many as six people working at Mater Dei from 1974 to 1987 have been accused in lawsuits of sexual abuse.

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