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Retired Priest Faces Sex Charges

Orange Diocese knew for years that Denis Lyons might be a pedophile, but didn't remove him

Apr 26, 2003 | The Orange County Register A retired priest was arrested Friday on charges he molested a teenage boy more than 20 years ago during counseling sessions at a Costa Mesa church and during visits to the boy's home.

Denis Lyons, 69, of Seal Beach is the fourth Roman Catholic priest to be prosecuted in Orange County since the national church sex-abuse scandals erupted two years ago.

Lyons, who taught at four Orange County churches and ended his career at scandal- tarnished St. Edward Church in Dana Point, was arrested at his Leisure World home. He was released Friday night on $100,000 bail.

Lawyers suing the church in sex-abuse cases praised the arrest.

"We are finally seeing a lot of detectives and prosecutors working hard to get these predators behind bars," Irvine attorney Katherine K. Freberg said. "The victims are truly grateful."

Neither Lyons or his attorney, Gary Pohlson, could be reached for comment.

The felony charges four counts of oral copulation and one count of committing a lewd act upon a child – carry a maximum sentence of 10 years and eight months in prison.

Lyons' arrest came nearly one year after one accuser, now 38, told Costa Mesa police that the priest molested him for three years beginning in 1978 at St. John the Baptist Catholic Church in Costa Mesa. He came forward after hearing about other recent accusations against Lyons.

One of those, by a man who said Lyons abused him when he was a minor in 1979 at St. John, prompted the Diocese of Orange to put Lyons on administrative leave last April. At the time, Lyons was a senior pastor at St. Edward and two months short of retirement.

Lyons had been on the diocese's radar as a possible pedophile since 1993, when he admitted to inappropriate behavior with two adults in 1979, when he was pastor at St. John. That admission prompted the diocese to place him in extensive counseling, and the suspect behavior stopped, Bishop Tod D. Brown said in a letter sent to St. Edward parishioners last April. In 1994, a year after Lyons admitted to the improper conduct with the two adults, the parents of two brothers contacted the diocese about alleged illegal behavior by Lyons in 1979, when the boys were 14 and 16.

Lyons denied the allegations. The diocese sent him to an eight-month residential treatment program for psychological counseling and evaluation, and then determined that he was not a pedophile and did not pose a risk to minors.

At the time, Lyons was not removed from the ministry because he "did not meet the diocese's criteria for proven sexual misconduct," Brown wrote in the letter.

A recently passed law gives prosecutors one year after an accuser comes forward to charge suspects in child-molesting cases, regardless of how long ago the alleged acts occurred. But the accusations must be serious involving fondling or intercourse, for example and must be strongly corroborated.

The complaint against Lyons includes corroborating evidence by three other males whose accounts mirror that of the accuser in the case, known only as John Doe.

According to the complaint, Lyons befriended the boy's family and frequently went to his house to drink whiskey with the boy's father.

On several occasions, the priest would take the boy's hand to shake it and pull it toward his genital area, according to the charges.

After the boy developed a drinking problem during his early teens, his father arranged for Lyons to counsel him in a small room in the church rectory, according to court documents.

And that is where much of the alleged abuse occurred.

Brown on Friday reiterated the church's commitment to weeding out suspect priests.

"We support the criminal-justice and law-enforcement efforts on behalf of victims of abuse," Brown said. "It is heart-wrenching that a priest may have engaged in such grave misconduct warranting criminal charges and an arrest. It is our sincere hope that the system of justice will be upheld."

Lyons' arrest comes a month after the arrest of another former St. Edward priest, John Lenihan, who is accused of lewd conduct with a teenager starting in 1978, while Lenihan was a priest at St. Norbert's in Orange.

Three other St. Edward priests have been accused of sexual misconduct.

And, in addition to Lyons and Lenihan, two former priests, Sigfried Widera and Gerald Plesetz, have been charged in Orange County with alleged molestation.

Lyons is scheduled to be arraigned Tuesday at Harbor Justice Center in Newport Beach.

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