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Ex-Priest Again Is Target in 2 Lawsuits

Michael Harris, the former cleric who headed Mater Dei and Santa Margarita high schools, is accused of sexual abuse.

October 30, 2003|William Lobdell | Times Staff Writer

Two lawsuits filed against the Roman Catholic Diocese of Orange on Wednesday claim that the former principal of Mater Dei High School repeatedly molested two boys around 1980, at times in his office.

The accusers are the latest to lodge sexual abuse allegations against Michael Harris, once a popular priest known as "Father Hollywood" to students. He headed Mater Dei in Santa Ana for nearly a decade starting in 1978 before leaving to be founding principal of Santa Margarita High School in south Orange County.

In 2001, the dioceses of Orange and Los Angeles paid Ryan DiMaria, a former Mater Dei student, $5.2 million to settle a molestation suit against Harris. That case included testimony from four others who said they had been sexually abused by the priest.

Harris, who left the priesthood as part of the settlement, has denied the previous allegations.

Neither he nor diocesan officials could be reached for comment Wednesday on the new claims.

In another development, a molestation victim will ask the Orange County district attorney today to start a criminal investigation into the actions of the Diocese of Orange and its handling of sexual abuse cases.

Joelle Casteix, a 33-year-old resident of Corona del Mar and former member of the diocese's sexual abuse oversight committee, said she will submit 1,000 pages of documents supporting her claim that the diocese protected priests that church officials knew were molesters.

One of the suits filed Wednesday was by a 39-year-old attorney who lives overseas. He alleged that as a high school junior at Mater Dei in 1980, he sought counseling from Harris. According to court documents, the principal molested him on numerous occasions, including in the principal's office and residence.

The Times does not name victims of sexual abuse without their permission.

The other suit was filed by a 40-year-old Nevada man. He alleged that he was molested in 1979 by Harris, whom he had met at his parish, St. Polycarp Church in Stanton.

Both men are represented by John Manly of Costa Mesa. They were able to bring the litigation under a state law effective Jan. 1 that suspends the statute of limitations in many sexual-abuse cases until the end of the year.

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