SNAP Opposes Honor for Priest
Sex abuse survivors say toasting O.C.'s Msgr. Baird
is an insult because he defended a tainted cleric and sued a woman
By David Haldane - L.A. Times Staff Writer
October 6, 2003
A Roman Catholic group representing victims of molestation by priests
has called for the cancellation of a dinner Friday honoring a priest
it says is tainted by the church's sex abuse scandal.
Msgr. Lawrence J. Baird, former spokesman for the Diocese of Orange
and now its director of development, is scheduled to be honored
as a "Defender of the Faith" with a dinner hosted by St.
Michael's Abbey on behalf of its parochial school, St. Michael's
Preparatory. But the regional director of Survivors Network of Those
Abused by Priests, a national support group with 5,000 members,
says the event should be canceled because Baird once defended a
fellow priest known by church officials to be a molestation risk
and, more recently, responded to allegations of sexual impropriety
against himself by unsuccessfully suing his accuser for slander.
"This is not what Jesus would do," Mary Grant, SNAP's
southwest regional director, said of the gala event at Mission San
Juan Capistrano. "We should not hold up that kind of un-Christian
behavior as a model."
Said John C. Manley, a Catholic attorney representing several people
who say they were sexually abused by priests: "This is not
the type of person that is a defender of my faith, and it's not
what I was taught about faith. Honestly, I would rather eat out
of a trash can than eat that dinner."
Baird, who has never been charged with a crime nor been subject
to any legal proceedings alleging wrongdoing on his part, said late
last week that he had spoken on behalf of the accused priest before
being aware of information pointing to his guilt that was known
to other church officials. As for the slander lawsuit he filed,
he said, "Everyone possesses the right to file a lawsuit, and
I pursued a legal avenue that was available to me and every citizen."
In a letter to Grant, the Right Rev. Eugene J. Hayes, abbot of
St. Michael's, an Orange County institution, said the dinner
expected to raise about $150,000 in scholarships for needy students
is critical to the abbey's prep school fund-raising efforts.
"Canceling the dinner," he wrote, "would hurt most
of all the young men who depend on us for a quality Catholic education."
And in similar letters to both Grant and Manley, Marjorie DeClue
writing on behalf of the prep school's lay board of advisors
defended the decision to honor Baird and Msgr. Paul Martin,
a retired pastor at Mission San Juan Capistrano. Both men, she wrote,
enjoy a "long-standing friendship with St. Michael's that dates
back to the '60s. The quality of the school's educational program
would not be what it is today without the friendships of these two
strong supporters. Each has made financial sacrifices over the years
to help students attend St. Michael's."
The tensions between Baird and members of what Grant calls the
"survivor community" date from 1994, when accusations
of sexual misconduct first surfaced against fellow priest Michael
A. Harris, the former principal of Mater Dei High School in Santa
Ana and, later, Santa Margarita High School in south Orange County.
Harris was placed on administrative leave and sent to St. Luke's
Institute in Maryland the Catholic Church's medical treatment
center for troubled priests. There, doctors concluded that he was
sexually attracted to adolescent boys, that "there is substance
to the allegations" and that the allegations were probably
just the tip of the iceberg.
Eventually, the Los Angeles and Orange dioceses settled with one
of Harris' alleged victims for $5.2 million, and the man once nicknamed
"Father Hollywood" because of his good looks and charisma
was removed from the priesthood. Yet just days after the St. Luke
findings were conveyed to church officials but before they
were made public Baird, acting in his capacity as diocesan
spokesman, defended Harris to newspaper reporters as "an icon
to the priesthood."
"He's never apologized," said Manley, adding that some
of his clients who are alleged victims of Harris were deeply hurt
by Baird's statement, even to the point of feeling suicidal. "Anyone
who would go to a dinner to honor someone who did that needs to
seriously examine their conscience."
Baird also found himself in SNAP's crosshairs last year after filing
the slander lawsuit against Lori Haigh of San Francisco, who had
accused him of sexual impropriety. Haigh had won a $1.2-million
settlement from the church after saying she had been molested and
impregnated as a teenager by Father John Lenihan, once a South County
priest. In announcing the settlement, Haigh told reporters that
she had sought Baird's help 20 years before while still being abused
and that he had responded by making sexual advances toward her.
Baird immediately called a news conference, vigorously denied any
misconduct and later filed the lawsuit. It was eventually dismissed
by a judge, who ordered the priest to pay Haigh's legal costs.
To date, according to her lawyer, Katherine Freberg, that debt
about $60,000 has not been paid.