John Lenihan, Priest Who Admitted to Sex Abuse of Teen, Agrees
to Leave the Clergy
Religion: John Lenihan had been pastor of a Dana
Point church. The bishop of Orange says background checks turn up
no new offenders.
By William Lobdell, Los Angeles Times Staff writer
March 29, 2002
John Lenihan, an Orange County priest who has admitted to molesting
a minor and having multiple affairs, has agreed to ask Pope John
Paul II to remove him from the priesthood, church officials announced
Tod D. Brown, bishop of the Diocese of Orange, also said a special
investigation launched last month into his priests' backgrounds
had concluded this week with one pastor found to have a history
of sexual abuse. That priest, Michael Pecharich, was removed earlier
this month from his Rancho Santa Margarita parish.
Pecharich and Lenihan are among three Orange County priests to
make headlines in recent months during the Roman Catholic Church's
unfolding sex scandal. The Diocese of Orange paid $5.2million in
August 2001 to a single victim to settle molestation accusations
against Msgr. Michael Harris. As part of the settlement, the dioceses
of Los Angeles and Orange were required to fire any priests with
a history of child molestation. Lenihan had no comment, his attorney
Lenihan, 56, will be laicized, a canonical process often used by
clergy who wish to leave the priesthood to marry. The procedure
will not be completed officially until the pope has given final
approval, a formality in this case because of the request by Lenihan
and the bishop.
Since the late 1980s, laicization has been used with increasing
frequency to remove molesters from the priesthood. Previously, such
priests often were stripped of their authority to perform religious
ceremonies but remained in the clergy for life.
In the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, it's unknown whether Cardinal
Roger M. Mahony has sought laicization for any of the six to 12
priests who sources say have been fired or asked to resign recently
because of past sexual abuse of minors. A spokesman for Mahony didn't
return phone calls Thursday.
Victims' rights leaders applauded the announcement of Lenihan's
removal from the priesthood.
"Knowledge is power and people need to know why this man"
was removed, said David Clohessy, national director of the St. Louis-based
Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests, known as SNAP.
In August, the Diocese of Orange asked Vatican officials to remove
Msgr. Michael Harris from the priesthood as part of the settlement.
Lenihan was removed as pastor of St. Edward Church in Dana Point
in September after he, under the pseudonym "Father X,"
revealed to a Los Angeles Times columnist that he had had several
sexual relationships, including "four serious ones."
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. The popular priest was allowed to continue
to work in the diocese.
In December, Lenihan was accused in a civil lawsuit of molesting
a second teenage girl for several years starting in the late 1970s.
"It's way overdue," Grant said of Lenihan's removal from
the clergy. "I'm glad that Roman collar isn't going to be his
path to molesting other children."
Grant was unable to seek criminal charges against Lenihan because
of statute of limitation problems.
Brown said he asked Lenihan to consider quitting the priesthood
last fall before the latest lawsuit. The priest was sent to a counseling
center in Canada but didn't complete the program, Brown said.
Lenihan agreed to the laicization last week in a decision that
Brown said "was very painful for him."
"My heart goes out to his victims, both minors and adults,
and his parishioners," Brown said. "I also feel sorry
for Father Lenihan."
If a priest doesn't agree with his removal, he can be defrocked.
Lenihan, who was ordained in 1969, will be paid by the Diocese
of Orange until his removal gets final Vatican approval. He will
receive a standard pension, church officials said.
Brown said he was pleased that the special investigation into his
priests' backgrounds is complete.
"I'm quite confident now that there is no one active in ministry
who [based on past incidents] poses a threat to minors," he