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LAUSD knew ex-priest it hired had been accused of molestation

District officials decided to keep Joseph Pina on the job after learning the Sheriff's Department was investigating allegations against him. No charges were filed.

February 06, 2013|By Richard Winton and Howard Blume, Los Angeles Times
  • L.A. Unified Supt. John Deasy ordered the dismissal of Joseph Pina this weekend, saying the former priest had no business working for the school system.
L.A. Unified Supt. John Deasy ordered the dismissal of Joseph Pina this… (Bob Chamberlin / Los Angeles…)

Officials at Los Angeles Unified School District knew that a former priest it hired as a community organizer had been accused of molestation but decided to keep him on the job, according to interviews and records reviewed by The Times.

Both L.A. Unified administrators and school police discussed the accusations against Joseph Pina, and were aware in 2002 that the L.A. County Sheriff's Department was investigating Pina for alleged child molestation months after the district had hired him.

Records indicate that school officials concluded that Pina should be removed from his job only if he were charged — or possibly convicted — of a crime. In the end, the Sheriff's Department dropped the Pina case because the alleged crime had passed the statute of limitations.

The Sheriff's Department said this week that it had launched a new investigation into a separate abuse allegation against Pina, also dating from his time as a priest.

The new focus on Pina came after the Los Angeles Archdiocese, pursuant to a court order, released priest abuse files last week, including those covering the accusations against Pina. An internal 1993 psychological evaluation recounts how Pina was attracted to a victim, an eighth-grade girl, when he saw her in a Snow White costume.

"I had a crush on Snow White, so I started to open myself up to her," he told the psychologist, according to the records. "I felt like I fell in love with her. I got sexually involved with her, but never intercourse. She was about 17 when we got involved sexually, and it continued until she was about 19."

L.A. schools chief John Deasy immediately ordered Pina's dismissal this weekend, saying that he had no business working for the school system.

Records show that the school district learned of the Pina molestation allegations in August 2002, eight months after he was hired. Someone noticed Pina's name in a Los Angeles Times article about the clergy-abuse scandal. That article reported allegations that Pina "sexually abused a 14-year-old girl in the 1970s while serving at a Los Angeles parish."

School police contacted the Sheriff's Department, which confirmed that he was under investigation. The department then provided a full briefing to school police, said Chief of Detectives William McSweeney.

According to records, Det. Steve Crowell of the Los Angeles School Police provided Pina's address, phone number, Social Security number and date of birth to the Sheriff's Department. He later forwarded additional information from Pina's personnel file.

The following day Crowell sent a fax to a sheriff's detective: "Can you E-mail me when the D/A's office determines what charges they are going to file?" it reads. "My commander was telling me that the district['s] options in how they are going to handle this situation depending what is happening legally."

Sheriff's detectives had begun their investigation in April 2002, after receiving allegations that Pina had sexually abused a girl for three years. Sheriff's detectives didn't know that he worked at the school district until officials told them, the department said.

But the archdiocese had been aware of accusations against Pina for years before he was hired by the school district.

A church spokesman said Monday that it warned the school district in the form of a pre-employment questionnaire that L.A. Unified sent to the archdiocese in August 2001.

"In response to the question: 'Should the Los Angeles Unified School District consider anything else regarding this candidate's employment suitability?', the archdiocese checked the box 'yes,' adding that we would 'not recommend him for a position in the schools,' " Tod Tamberg, director of media relations, said in a statement.

"In response to the next question on the form, 'Would you hire this person again?' the archdiocese checked the box 'no,' " Tamberg said.

L.A. Unified officials said this week that they were unable to find the questionnaire in Pina's employment file. No evidence has emerged that either the district or the archdiocese followed up on the questionnaire.

The church apparently continued to track Pina's whereabouts. A document from 2009 noted that Pina was working for L.A. Unified.

Pina's named appeared in a second Times article on clergy abuse in 2006. In response to either the 2002 or 2006 Times article, a district employee alerted senior supervisors in the school-construction program, Deasy said.

The employee said this week that the supervisors decided to take no action because Pina had not been convicted of a crime, Deasy said.

Pina's job, with the school-construction branch, brought him into frequent contact with families, but no reports of problems have emerged regarding his time in this role. Through his attorney, Pina, 66, said he had no comment.

Deasy added that, under current policies, Pina would not have been hired. And had his background been discovered later, he would have been immediately dismissed.

District officials also have begun looking for other current or former employees with problem pasts. They are cross-referencing their records with the released archdiocese files as well as those released in litigation against the Boy Scouts, another organization accused of concealing molestations.

richard.winton@latimes.com

howard.blume@latimes.com

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