Lori Haigh couldn’t stand the voice of Father John Lenihan any longer. So she sat among the congregants in the parish hall and stabbed a pencil into her left thigh again and again, until blood began to flow.
The 16-year-old was hoping someone at St. Norbert Church in Orange would ask her what was wrong. That’s when she would blurt it all out:
Father John was molesting me. Three, four, five times a week for the past two years. He got me pregnant and then paid for the abortion. He set me up with another priest.
But no one asked.
It took Haigh 20 years and a million-dollar lawsuit to be noticed.
The dioceses of Los Angeles and Orange last week agreed to pay her $1.2 million to settle her accusations against Lenihan and the church. Though Lenihan neither admitted nor denied the allegations involving Haigh, he previously admitted to molesting another teenage girl and having several sexual relationships with adult women. He agreed last month to be removed from the priesthood.
Bishop Tod D. Brown of Orange County last week acknowledged that Haigh had been molested, saying, “I am deeply sorry for the hurt caused by the actions of Father Lenihan, and extend my apology to Ms. Haigh and all victims of sexual abuse by clergy.”
The sexual abuse scandal now racking the U.S. Roman Catholic Church has many victims. But Lori Haigh stands apart on several grounds. The allegations that led to the settlement are among the most serious yet leveled against a priest. And while many victims contend that molestations haunted them for years, Haigh is among the few willing to detail how her life spiraled downward after repeated sexual abuse, while the church ignored her complaints.
She is now a San Francisco mother who appears to lead an enviable life as a video entrepreneur and songwriter.
But she says that she hates to wear dresses because they make her feel vulnerable–the same way she felt when Lenihan allegedly would take her in his silver Mercury Monarch and park on deserted roads. She picks at the skin around her fingernails, leaving them bloody, saying it distracts her from bad thoughts. She says she has tried to commit suicide more than 10 times, beginning at 16, when Lenihan allegedly got her pregnant.
Haigh grew up in a devoutly Catholic family. Her parents, Jane and Faust Capobianco, sent her to parochial school near their home in Villa Park, an affluent community in Orange County. The family attended Mass each Sunday at the Holy Family Cathedral in Orange.
Haigh played the guitar along with two nuns at her school, a talent that caught the eye of a 32-year-old priest from Ireland, Father Lenihan. He asked the 14-year-old to be part of the band at his “rock ‘n’ roll” Mass on Sunday evenings at St. Norbert Church in Orange.
“He showed a big interest in me,” she said. “I felt special, like I was selected out of the crowd to be his confidant.”
She was too young to drive, so Lenihan volunteered to pick her up at her home. Her parents said they were happy that a popular priest had taken an interest in their daughter’s life.
“You look to them for guidance,” said her father, a retired doctor now living in Tennessee. “You value the association.”
Haigh said Lenihan almost immediately began hugging and kissing her in the car.
“I’d never kissed a boy before,” she said. “It seemed like a safe situation. I knew he would never tell.” And she did not imagine it would go further.
But it did, first to oral sex, then intercourse. Haigh said the molestations continued regularly until she was 17.
She said she didn’t make him stop because, in some ways, he was her first love. He also gave her freedom: He had a car, and she could stay out late with him.
Giving Signs That She Needed Help
Haigh’s parents didn’t particularly like her friends from Villa Park High School, where she had recently transferred, so they encouraged her involvement with the parish and Father John.
Classmate Andrea Lamacki once watched Lenihan stare at Haigh from the rectory window and run out into the church parking lot to give her an expensive harmonica.
“I remember thinking that was odd, it wasn’t right,” Lamacki said.
Haigh started to give signs, both subtle and obvious that she needed help. Her grades, normally A’s, plummeted. She ditched classes. She wore an asymmetrical punk haircut and “Dead Kennedys” T-shirts.
Another classmate, Shannon Moser, remembers Haigh in tears, talking on the phone in a mutual friend’s bedroom. When Moser asked another friend what was wrong, she was told that Father John had gotten Haigh pregnant and was telling her to get an abortion. Moser didn’t believe the story until Haigh held up the phone and she recognized Lenihan’s distinctive Irish brogue.
Haigh went to a Planned Parenthood clinic for the abortion.
She began to tell some adults about her relationship with Lenihan: the psychiatrist that her parents sent her to when her grades began to fall, and the abortion counselor at Planned Parenthood. Neither told her parents, though the psychiatrist bound by doctor-patient confidentiality did tell her parents to keep her away from the church and Father John. Haigh said her parents took the warning as anti-Catholic sentiment. It’s unclear why the psychiatrist, now retired and unavailable for comment, didn’t report the incidents to law enforcement.
“[At Planned Parenthood,] the counselor asked me how the father felt about the abortion, and I said, ‘Well, he’s my Catholic priest.’ I don’t know if she believed me or not, but she just kept on going,” Haigh said.
Lenihan also told her he wanted her to meet a fellow priest and schoolmate from Ireland who had recently arrived, Haigh said. The priest, whose name Haigh could not remember, took her to dinner at a coffee shop. Afterward, she said, he tried to sexually attack her in his car.
She finds it hard to explain why she couldn’t tell her parents. She rattles off some possibilities: She was afraid of getting Lenihan in trouble. She thought somehow she was doing a good deed for the church by providing Lenihan a sexual release. She thought “the needs of many outweighed the needs of me.”
“Who wants to be the one to get this spiritual icon in trouble?” she asked.
‘I Realized Then That I Was in This Alone’
Finally, Haigh said, she decided to tell another priest. She said she went to Father Lawrence J. Baird, a priest she said was revered by her family. Now a monsignor and diocesan spokesman, Baird was in residence at the Holy Family Cathedral in 1982.
Haigh said she told Baird about her relationship with Lenihan and he responded by kissing her and rubbing himself against her. She said she pushed him away.
Last week Baird adamantly denied the allegation, and threatened to file a defamation lawsuit against Haigh if she does not recant.
Haigh said she also met with Father John Urell, another priest at the cathedral. Urell is now a monsignor and vicar general, the third- highest-ranking priest in the Diocese of Orange. She alleges that Urell called her a liar and told to stay away from the church.
Haigh said her meeting with Urell did more lasting emotional damage to her than the four years of alleged abuse by Lenihan.
“I felt like it took so much courage to finally go to the church,” she said. “I wanted at least to be absolved by a priest for my part in it.”
Urell also has denied meeting Haigh.
The sexual relationship finally ended when Lenihan told her that he would deny it all if word leaked out.
“I thought he would [face] consequences for what he had done,” she said. “I realized then that I was in this alone.”
She barely graduated from high school in 1982 and started classes at Orange Coast College. She eventually landed a job with a Beverly Hills public relations firm. Among her duties were hosting parties for rock stars. She said she “self-medicated” with drugs and alcohol.
“My career and everything was really good, but I still felt horrible inside,” she said. “I didn’t believe in God.”
Her roommate was writing a screenplay based loosely upon her relationship with Lenihan, and Haigh said she wanted to kill herself so the priest would have “my blood on his conscience.” That would give her roommate the perfect ending for the movie.
In 1989, Haigh decided to start a new life in Nashville, where she did publicity for Christian music artists and began a video production business. She married a Hare Krishna, explored that religion and had a son. “Eastern religion was as far away as I could get from Catholicism,” she said.
Haigh said she occasionally would get into her car, leave her seat belt unfastened and race down the country roads near Nashville. She crashed several times times and totaled a Jeep Cherokee. She hoped she would die.
“But I kept walking away,” she said with laugh.
Haunted by the Past in San Francisco
Haigh divorced in 1991, and a few years later met her current husband in London while she was on a movie shoot. She moved with him and her son to San Francisco.
There, she shoots corporate and music videos, creates multimedia content for Web sites and has a weekly cable access show. She has another child, a 2-year-old boy. She’s fixing up a four-story home she bought in the Twin Peaks area of San Francisco,
She has a music studio in the basement where she writes and plays her folk rock songs. On Monday night, she’s often at the Hotel Utah, playing her guitar to small crowds on “open mike” night.
And when I wake he will be gone
And I won’t see him until the classroom
It’s just a tale of right and wrong
That they will whisper inside the bathroom
How she lost the game
She’ll never be the same
Her hidden life is still with her. She says her second marriage is in trouble, for a variety of reasons. Aside from her children, she says she has problems with intimacy of any kind.
“I can’t seem to have normal relationships with anyone,” she said, “and I don’t think I ever will. I just don’t want to inflict myself on other people.”
In the Mission district, she worked next door to Dennis Hodges’ carpentry business for a full year until she even said hello.
“She holds everyone at arm’s length,” said Hodges, who’s become a friend. “I just see the surface.”
“Sometimes I look at the path I was on, cheerleader, Polo shirts, preppy and the whole life I had ahead of me, and I feel like I’ve been tarnished and shunned by God,” she said.
She filed the lawsuit in December, prompted by Lenihan’s confessions about his previous relationships to Times columnist Steve Lopez. She was angry, she said, that he admitted to only one molestation of a minor and not to his alleged transgressions with her. On Monday last week, Haigh attended a press conference called by Baird to deny her charges. Diocesan officials and parishioners have rallied around Baird, and Auxiliary Bishop Jaime Soto stood next to him as he described Haigh’s accusation as “absolutely without foundation.”
“I state unequivocally that I have no awareness of ever having met or spoken with this person in my life and have absolutely no idea who Miss Haigh is,” Baird said. “I have 100% memory that I have never made any inappropriate contact with any person during my 33 years as a priest. No one has ever made such a charge.
“I have no idea what motivates her to make such an insidious allegation.” Baird turned to Haigh and said, “I pray for you.”
Haigh said she felt devastated.
“I got this settlement, but they are still calling me a liar,” she said. “That’s the whole reason why I filed the lawsuit in the first place.”