A longtime volunteer at a Catholic church in Manhattan Beach has filed suit against the Archdiocese of Los Angeles alleging that a priest sexually molested her while she was arranging flowers in preparation for Sunday Mass.
Catherine Bergin filed the suit Tuesday in Los Angeles Superior Court, alleging sexual harassment and sexual battery. It seeks unspecified damages.
Bergin, a mother of three who said she has taught religious education and served as a Eucharistic minister, alleged that she was approached from behind last April and touched inappropriately by Nicholas Assi, a priest at American Martyrs Church.
In an interview prior to the suit being filed, the archdiocese said it had investigated the complaint and that Assi had been placed on leave and then eventually reassigned to St. Basil Catholic Church in Koreatown. The archdiocese said Assi remained a “priest in good standing.”
Manhattan Beach police also investigated the allegations but no charges were filed. A detective who worked on the investigation said Assi refused to talk with police without an attorney present, and that police never met with him.
Bergin alleged that Assi came up behind her while she was trimming flowers in the sacristy and pressed his nose against her neck and began breathing deeply as he put his hand under her shirt.
She said the priest said, “My darling,” as he slid his hand under her waistband.
Bergin said the encounter left her frightened and distraught. She said she quickly sought advice from her husband and a church deacon who was a friend.
The church opened an investigation and printed an announcement in the church bulletin that Assi had been placed on leave “during the investigation of an allegation of inappropriate conduct involving a female adult.”
Monica Valencia, a spokeswoman for the archdiocese, wrote in an email that Assi was later sent to St. Basil “out of respect for the female parishioner who made the complaint.”
In remarks before the suit was filed, Assi said the archdiocese had cleared him. “She’s going after me,” he said of Bergin, declining further comment.