The Roman Catholic Diocese of Orange County paid $400,000 last month to settle a lawsuit in which a priest was accused of having a sexual affair with an emotionally troubled woman who had sought counseling from him.
The settlement was the third payout by church officials to settle claims of sexual misconduct against John Lenihan, former pastor at St. Edward Church in Dana Point. Lenihan agreed to leave the priesthood earlier this year after Catholic officials paid $1.2 million to a San Francisco woman who accused him of getting her pregnant 20 years ago as a teenager and paying for an abortion.
Orange County sheriff’s deputies have been conducting a criminal investigation to determine if Lenihan can be prosecuted for sexual abuse of a minor in the case involving the San Francisco woman.
In the recently settled lawsuit, Margaret Cayer, 41, of Laguna Niguel, alleged last month that Lenihan began an 18-month sexual relationship that triggered a deep depression and led to an addiction to prescription pills.
Due to the accusations and previous cases against Lenihan, church officials settled with Cayer on Aug. 23 instead of taking the case to trial, a diocesan spokeswoman said Thursday.
“He did seriously cross ministerial boundaries,” spokeswoman Maria Schinderle told the Los Angeles Times. “While the relationship was consenting, his past discretions would not help in defense of the suit.”
Lenihan, 57, and his attorney could not be reached for comment.
Cayer alleged in her lawsuit that she moved to Orange County in 1999 and went to St. Edward Church “to develop inner strength and support to deal with the long history of depression and other psychological and emotional difficulties.”
The lawsuit stated that Lenihan offered to counsel her a year later and six months after the counseling began the priest kissed her.
“I was in shock,” Layer told the Times on Thursday. “My God, I just kissed a priest. But at the same time, I had mixed feelings because I really liked him. This powerful man thought I was attractive.”
Cayer also named an Orange County doctor in the lawsuit as a defendant, claiming that Lenihan got him to provide her Prozac, Valium and Xanax, which are commonly used to treat anxiety and depression.
Her attorney said the lawsuit will proceed without the diocese, but with Lenihan and the doctor as defendants.
Lenihan in 1991 admitted to church officials that he sexually abused a teenage girl in the 1970s. The church paid $25,000 to Mary Grant to settle her lawsuit.