A senior Roman Catholic priest in the Diocese of Orange sexually assaulted and harassed a female church employee last year at a prominent Irvine parish where he was placed despite a similar prior accusation, according to a lawsuit filed by the woman.
Father Alex Kim is accused by his former assistant of sexually assaulting her several times at St. John Neumann Catholic Church. She alleged in the suit that she felt compelled to take a leave of absence to avoid his attacks.
In July 2016, Kim pushed her against a wall in the rectory "and forcibly kissed, groped and fondled her," said the lawsuit, which was filed Wednesday. Kim then "pulled his genitals out of his pants and rubbed it against" her," the woman's complaint alleges. The next day, according to the lawsuit, he sent her "innocuous texts messages as if nothing happened."
The woman, who is identified only as Jane Doe in the lawsuit, has known Kim since she was a child and described him as once being her spiritual mentor, the suit says.
In a statement, the diocese said Kim was "immediately removed from public ministry in September 2016 after the Diocese was made aware of the allegation in this case." The statement emphasized that Kim was not accused of misconduct involving minors and said the diocese "vehemently denies the claims made in this case by an adult former employee and looks forward to the opportunity to defend itself in court, where it is confident that justice will prevail."
The diocese said it could not comment further, citing state law that protects the privacy of employee personnel records.
Kim could not be reached for comment.
The diocese's news publication, Orange County Catholic, said Kim was ordained in 1991 after attending St. John's seminary in Camarillo. He worked at various Orange County churches before becoming director of the St. Thomas Korean Center in Anaheim and then St. John Neumann.
"He loves serving individuals and communities so they can realize and develop their God-given gifts and talents to help them discern their mission and purpose," the publication said.
According to the lawsuit, Kim was the subject of sexual misconduct complaints dating back more than a decade. In 2012, Kim was temporarily removed from ministry at St. Thomas Korean Catholic Center after a female parishioner accused him of sexually harassing and assaulting her, and he was sent to a treatment facility for clergy accused of sexual misconduct, the lawsuit said.
The suit alleges that Kim was returned to ministry, appointed pastor of St. John Neumann in 2015 and permitted to hire the plaintiff, a "single, young, impressionable woman."
"Father Kim had a long history of exploiting female parishioners. The diocese knew it," said David Ring, an attorney representing the woman, whose suit names the priest, diocese and church as defendants. He said his legal team has interviewed some of the women who complained about Kim in the past.
The decision to return a priest to ministry despite prior accusations of sexual misconduct echoes similar actions that led to the child sex abuse scandal that engulfed the church more than a decade ago, Ring said, though he acknowledged that the women accusing Kim are adults.
The woman who filed Thursday's lawsuit has known Kim since she was 10, her complaint said. He gave her spiritual guidance that led her to join a convent in Korea as a Catholic nun, but she later left and returned to Orange County, the lawsuit said.
She started working as Kim's assistant at St. John Neumann in July 2015.
The lawsuit alleges that the abuse began on April 2, 2016, when he invited to the rectory and suddenly began to grope her. Later, Kim sent her a text suggesting he had been drunk that night, according to the suit. She said she confronted him a few days later and warned him his behavior was unacceptable.
Two months later, he groped, kissed and fondled her before exposing his genitals, according to the suit. Later, he apologized and begged her to continue working at the parish, the suit said. She made him promise that such behavior would never again happen.
On Sept. 6, 2016, Kim again groped her and exposed his genitals, according to the suit.
When she took a leave of absence, he contacted her and begged her to return to help him make preparations for the celebration of his 25th anniversary as a priest, the lawsuit said. A few days later, she reported his conduct to the diocese. She was "constructively terminated" in May, according to the suit.
4:40 p.m.: This article was updated with a statement from the Diocese of Orange.