The Archdiocese of Los Angeles suspended a priest Friday amid allegations that he stole nearly $300,000 from an elderly widow who was a member of his parish.
Michalena Jones, 79, filed a lawsuit this week that accused Father Peter Valdez of befriending her after her husband's death and using his influence to steal $284,000 over a seven-year period.
The archdiocese placed Valdez on administrative leave, "pending the resolution of this matter," said Tod Tamberg, an archdiocese spokesman.
Jones said she met Valdez at St. Mary's Catholic Church in Palmdale after her husband died in 2003. The priest persuaded Jones to give him $150,000 to buy a home in Downey and added his name to her checking account, which he used to make mortgage payments, the lawsuit said.
"Jones was a devout Catholic. She developed a great admiration, trust, reverence and respect for and obedience to Roman Catholic clergy, who occupied great influence and persuasion as holy men and authority figures," Jones' lawsuit said. This caused her to "respect and obey Catholic priests, including Defendant Valdez," it said.
The lawsuit, filed Wednesday in Los Angeles County Superior Court, also seeks damages from the archdiocese, which it accused of failing to intervene after it learned of the situation.
Tamberg said in an email that "the archdiocese had no knowledge of the alleged financial transactions between Father Valdez and the plaintiff" until it was contacted by her attorneys this year. "Beyond this, archdiocesan policy precludes comment on pending litigation."
Valdez could not be reached for comment.
Valdez, 46, had served as a priest since 1998 and was at St. Mary's from 2003 to 2005, Tamberg said.
William McMillan, an attorney for Jones, said he was disappointed that it took a lawsuit and media attention for the archdiocese to take action. He said that Jones' family told the church last year about the theft and that he personally met with archdiocese officials this past spring to discuss the matter.
"My church needs to stop doing what it has been doing for a long time in protecting people who shouldn't be protected," said McMillan, who is Catholic. "They need to stop these activities, whether it's abuse of children or financial elder abuse. They need to get these people out and do a quicker job of it."
According to the lawsuit, the thefts were not discovered until November 2011, when Jones' son took over her finances after she entered a convalescent home.
The son discovered that Valdez stole $284,000 from Jones from 2003 until 2010, the lawsuit said. Valdez has made promises about returning the money but has failed to do so, McMillan said.
Los Angeles County property records show that a person named Peter Valdez bought a home on Brock Avenue in Downey — the home mentioned in the lawsuit — for $620,000 in 2006, taking a mortgage for $480,000. He sold the home in 2010 for $330,000, the records show.
The lawsuit accuses Valdez and the archdiocese of elder abuse and fraud and seeks unspecified compensatory and punitive damages.