The Roman Catholic Diocese of Orange quietly paid $400,000 last month to settle a lawsuit accusing a priest of having had a lurid sexual affair with an emotionally troubled woman who had sought counseling from him.
The settlement was the third payout by church officials to settle allegations of sexual misconduct by John Lenihan, once the popular pastor of St. Edward Church in Dana Point. He agreed to leave the priesthood this spring after Catholic officials paid $1.2 million to a San Francisco woman who accused Lenihan of impregnating her 20 years ago as a teenager and paying for her abortion.
In a suit filed last month in Orange County Superior Court, Margaret Cayer, 41, of Laguna Niguel alleged that Lenihan began an 18-month sexual relationship that triggered a deep depression, led to an addiction to prescription pills and caused heartbreak for her 11-year-old handicapped son, who still prays to Jesus every night for “Father John” to return.
Given the accusations and previous cases against Lenihan, church officials settled with Cayer on Aug. 23 rather than take the case to trial, a diocesan spokeswoman said Thursday. While they disputed some of Cayer’s allegations, they conceded there was priest misconduct.
“He did seriously cross ministerial boundaries,” spokeswoman Maria Schinderle said. “While the relationship was consenting, his past indiscretions would not help in defense of the suit.”
Cayer attorney James P. McDonough said, “Not only children, but fragile, vulnerable adults can also become victims of the clergy.”
Neither Lenihan, 57, nor his attorney could be reached for comment Thursday afternoon.
The Irish-born Lenihan has admitted to only one of the three accusations: molesting a teenage girl in the 1970s. Lenihan was ousted from St. Edward last September after admitting, under the pseudonym of “Father X,” to Times columnist Steve Lopez that he had had “numerous” sexual relationships with consenting women.
Orange County sheriff’s deputies are conducting a criminal investigation to determine whether Lenihan could be prosecuted for sexual abuse of a minor in the case of the San Francisco woman.
The $400,000 payout, which was not covered by insurance, comes at a time when the Orange diocese is struggling financially from, among other causes, a downturn in stock market investment returns.
In Cayer’s suit, she alleged 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.”
According to the lawsuit, a year later, Lenihan offered to counsel her and began meeting with her three or four times a week and telephoning her house regularly. About six months after the counseling began, Cayer said, Lenihan kissed her.
“I was in shock,” she said in an interview 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.”
A sexual relationship with Lenihan continued for about 18 months, the suit said. They met in hotel rooms, he gave her gifts, they took nude photos of each other, and they shared intimate nightly phone calls, according to the suit.
“It was like we were husband and wife,” said Cayer, whose husband had committed suicide in the early 1990s.
In the suit, Cayer contended she had told at least six diocese priests about the affair, but that none of the clerics approached Lenihan or his superiors about his behavior.
Schinderle said the facts about her contact with the priests were otherwise.
Cayer also named an Orange County doctor in the suit, saying Lenihan got him to provide her with Prozac, Valium and Xanax to help her during his time away.
She said he called her, using sexually explicit language, up to four times a day from Canada, where he had been sent for treatment last fall, then broke off the relationship without explanation in December 2001.
Cayer’s attorney said the suit will proceed without the diocese and with Lenihan and the doctor as defendants.
She also said she’s angry with church leaders because they had knowledge of Lenihan’s sexual misconduct more than 20 years earlier but did nothing.
In 1991, Lenihan 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.