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2 suspended at Catholic O.C. school

Principal, teacher under fire over unspecified allegations regarding students' trip to Europe. Diocese has asked parents for information.

February 01, 2007|Seema Mehta | Times Staff Writer

A teacher at a Roman Catholic high school in south Orange County was placed on leave this week after unspecified concerns were raised about student trips to Europe that he led.

The principal of Santa Margarita Catholic High School in Rancho Santa Margarita also was suspended for failure to disclose the allegations to the diocese, church officials said.

Faculty, parents and students learned of the investigation of Brother Lawrence Monroe, the principal, and Eric Hansen, a religion and art history teacher, in a letter sent Tuesday by Father Gerald M. Horan, vicar for faith formation and superintendent of schools for the Diocese of Orange.

"Diocesan officials have received a report of concerns regarding independent European tours arranged and led by Dr. Eric Hansen," the letter said. "These tours are not sponsored or sanctioned by" the school.

The letter asks anyone with information about the trips to contact Bernie Esposito, a private investigator who is looking into the matter for the diocese.

Diocese officials refused to comment on the nature of the allegations.

"The investigation is ongoing, and we cannot comment further until its completion," said Ryan Lilyengren, spokesman for the diocese.

Attempts to contact Hansen were unsuccessful. Monroe, Horan and Esposito declined to comment.

Critics questioned why church officials were reluctant to provide details, especially in light of promises of openness in the wake of molestation settlements involving priests.

"The announcement they sent out is not very transparent at all because it doesn't give parents any information that helps them safeguard their children," said attorney Ryan DiMaria. DiMaria in 2001 won a $5.2-million settlement, an apology and sweeping policy changes from the diocese after being abused a decade earlier by Msgr. Michael Harris, the charismatic founding principal of Santa Margarita Catholic High School.

The Orange County Sheriff's Department, which has jurisdiction over Rancho Santa Margarita, is not investigating, according to spokesman Jim Amormino.

No information has been provided to the department that a crime took place in Orange County and the agency would not investigate allegations of crimes in Europe, he said.

Lilyengren refused to comment on whether the matter had been reported to any law enforcement. "Diocesan policy is that [any criminal allegation] is reported to police automatically," he said.

Tyler Alt, one of nearly three dozen students who took a 2 1/2 -week trip to Europe with Hansen and another chaperon last summer, said he saw no inappropriate behavior.

Alt, 18, of Foothill Ranch wondered whether a parent was being overly sensitive about students drinking alcohol during the trip.

Hansen met with parents and students, mostly graduating seniors, about a week before the trip and discussed the likelihood the teens would sample alcohol in Europe, where the drinking age is lower than in the U.S. Parents were asked to write a note to Hansen if they didn't want their child imbibing, but it could not be determined Wednesday if any parents wrote such a note.

Alt said that while teens did drink during the trip, he saw no out-of-control behavior. "We were pretty calm," he said. "We were in Germany during the World Cup -- most of us got pretty caught up with the fervor. People had drinks ... We were American teenage kids in Europe."

Hansen, whom Alt referred to as "Doc," was a well-liked teacher students would go to with problems and who inspired him to want to become an archeologist.

seema.mehta@latimes.com

Times staff writer Garrett Therolf contributed to this report.

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