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Two Calif. Dioceses Settle Suit For $1.2M

Apr 2, 2002 | AP

Announcement of a $1.2 million settlement of a woman's lawsuit claiming sexual abuse by Roman Catholic priests erupted in turmoil Monday when she accused a diocesan spokesman of sexual misconduct and he threatened to sue her.

Lori Capobianco Haigh filed a report on the alleged 1982 incident with the Orange County Sheriff's Department after she made accusations against Diocese of Orange spokesman Monsignor Lawrence Baird during a press conference on her settlement.

"This accusation is absolutely without any foundation," Baird told his own press conference which Haigh attended. "I have no idea what motivates her to make such an insidious allegation."

Haigh, 37, claimed that a sexually aroused Baird hugged and kissed her when she sought him out to tell of being sexually abused by another priest, the Rev. John Lenihan, who allegedly impregnated her at age 16 and paid for her to have an abortion.

Her lawsuit against the Diocese of Orange and the Archdiocese of Los Angeles alleged the 1982 meeting occurred to try to establish that the diocese knew of the molestation by Lenihan, but the suit did not name the priest at the meeting.

"Such outrageous allegations demean innocent people," Baird said. "If this charge is not quickly retracted I plan to sue for defamation of character."

At one point he addressed Haigh directly.

"I pray for you and all those who have been sexually abused," he said.

Haigh, who lives in the San Francisco Bay area, said she stood by her allegations.

"I'm telling the truth," she said.

Sheriff's spokesman Jim Amormino confirmed that a report was taken Monday accusing Baird of sexual misconduct.

Haigh's attorney, Katherine Freberg, said the matter was in the hands of police and she planned no civil action against Baird. At her client's press conference she had called for the removal of Baird and Monsignor John Urell, who investigates sensitive issues.

Haigh had also claimed that weeks after the alleged encounter with Baird she returned to Holy Family Cathedral and this time tried to talk to Urell, but he called her a liar and told her he never wanted to see her in the church again.

The diocese issued a statement denying the allegations against Baird and Urell and maintaining "that Ms. Haigh did not meet either of them in 1982 or at any time."

"At this time there are no facts to support Ms. Haigh's allegation," Bishop Tod D. Brown, head of the diocese, said in a statement. "We have settled a litigation based on the misconduct of John Lenihan only. I have no reason to doubt the word of Monsignor Urell or Monsignor Baird."

Haigh's lawsuit, which claimed the sexual abuse began in 1979 when she was 14, was filed in Orange County Superior Court in December.

"When I was 16 years old, Father John got me pregnant. When I told him about the pregnancy he told me that I had to get an abortion," Haigh said.

Most of the settlement will be paid by the Orange diocese. The Los Angeles archdiocese will pay $240,000, spokesman Tod M. Tamberg said in a news release.

"In two paragraphs of the 143-paragraph complaint, Ms. Haigh alleged that an unidentified priest of the Los Angeles archdiocese engaged in sexual contact with her that occurred around 20 years ago," the release said.

An investigation "did not yield specific enough information to identify this person or confirm whether the events described by Ms. Haigh ever occurred," the release said. The allegations were reported to Los Angeles police nonetheless, he said.

"The archdiocese settled (this) case based on the estimated cost of defending against (Haigh's) lawsuit, not on the merits of the allegations regarding the unidentified priest," Tamberg said.

Lenihan, 56, formerly of St. Edward Church in Dana Point, resigned last year after admitting sexual relationships over the years with several women and teen-age girls.

He has agreed to ask Pope John Paul II to be removed from the priesthood.

Lenihan told church officials in 1991 that he sexually abused a teen-age girl in the 1970s. The Diocese of Orange settled a lawsuit that year for $25,000. The victim, Mary Grant, now 38, attended Haigh's press conference on the latest settlement.

Freberg previously represented a man who said he was molested in 1991 at age 17 by Monsignor Michael Harris, principal of Santa Margarita Catholic High School in the Orange diocese. The mother of another alleged victim of Harris reported the alleged abuse in 1993 to a priest of the Los Angeles archdiocese.

Last August, the Archdiocese of Los Angeles and the Diocese of Orange settled the Harris case for $5.2 million. Harris, 56, denied the allegations but agreed to leave the priesthood. He has been on inactive leave from the church since 1994.

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