A prominent Orange County priest who founded an internationally known boys' chorus has been suspended from his priestly duties and ordered to sever all ties with the singing group amid allegations that he sexually molested five youths from 10 to 30 years ago.
Father Richard T. Coughlin, 68, longtime director of the All-American Boys Chorus, denied the charges, saying he "can't recollect anything" that could have led to the allegations.
A Jan. 29 letter from the Diocese of Orange to the chorus board of directors said, "Coughlin will no longer be allowed to function publicly as a priest," and "permission granted him to engage in the . . . All-American Boys Chorus has been permanently withdrawn."
Officials of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Orange emphasized that none of the allegations involve current members of the chorus.
Five men, currently aged 23 to 45 years old, came forward independently and told the diocese that Coughlin had molested them when they were boys, said Msgr. John Urell, who assisted in an investigation initiated Dec. 1 by a four-member diocesan team.
"I have absolutely no recollection, I swear to the Almighty, of these charges," Coughlin said in an telephone interview with The Times on Tuesday.
"I certainly can't say that I know that I did because I can't recollect anything. I'm a confused and very much destroyed man," he said.
Coughlin said he did not know why anyone would accuse him of molestation. "That's the question I ask and everyone in this situation asks."
The diocese decided the accusations had merit because "five people came forward and they are not connected," Urell said in an interview. "If there's smoke perhaps there's fire," he said.
While there is no suggestion of impropriety involving current choir members, Urell said, "obviously you certainly do get concerned about that because of the age spread" of the men now making allegations against Coughlin. The allegations come at a time when religious organizations are increasingly being rocked by sexual misconduct among clergy. In response, the National Conference of Catholic Bishops last year pledged stepped-up efforts to remain vigilant against sexual abuse.
Four of the five men who complained to the Orange Diocese about Coughlin were members of the chorus between 1970 and 1983 when the alleged molestations took place, Urell said.
The fifth man who contacted the diocese accused Coughlin of molesting him in Boston, where Coughlin worked in a parish and attended seminary school before coming to Orange County in 1965, Urell said.
Coughlin resigned as director of the chorus on Dec. 28, citing "serious problems" in his life, and was replaced by assistant conductor David Albulario, a former choir member.
The popular Roman Catholic priest with a Boston accent had led the All-American Boys Chorus--comprising about 100 boys from age 9 through 14--since he founded it in 1970. His ensemble, based in Costa Mesa, has recorded three albums and appeared on numerous worldwide tours, including concerts for Pope Paul VI at the Vatican. The chorus is a nonprofit group not affiliated with or funded by the Catholic church.
Former chorus member Joe Beckman, 32, of Orange told The Times that Coughlin kissed or fondled him 50 to 60 times when he sang with the group in 1970 and 1971. Beckman said he fears that there may be more victims than the five interviewed by the diocese.
"There's victims walking around with this stuff," Beckman said. "They need to know, their families need to know something happened."
Beckman said he struggled for several years with anxiety and guilt after the alleged molestations. He said he sought counseling for several years afterward.
"I managed not to blame the church," he said. "But I don't go around thinking (priests) are gods any more."
Diocesan officials would not describe the acts the men alleged or say where they allegedly took place.
Tony Manrique, a member of the board of directors and a former chorus member, said that Coughlin in resigning his post told the board that "there were serious problems in his life and he wanted to resign while he worked them out."
Manrique criticized the action the diocese took against Coughlin, saying, "I think that is a little insight to how the church works; there's no due process."
Parents and volunteers were notified of Coughlin's resignation by a letter from the board.
Some parents said that Coughlin had health problems and that they had assumed that he resigned because of these. Coughlin had had a heart attack and surgery within the last year and a half, Urell said.
"We haven't heard of any allegations of any sort," said one mother and longtime volunteer. Her son graduated and left the chorus last year. "It would certainly surprise me. My connection with the chorus has been long-running, and I never heard or saw any problems like that."
She said the parents will be concerned "if they feel there is any truth to the matter."
Urell told The Times that he got in touch with the five men through a series of phone calls and talks with the chorus board of directors. He said the five came forward over the past few months, independently of each other.
The first man, now 28, called the diocese in early December, 1992, saying he was a former chorus member and laying out allegations against Coughlin, Urell said. That man told Urell he thought that there may have been others in the chorus who were also molested.
Urell said he then contacted the chorus' six-member board of directors, whose members told him that they had been recently contacted by two other men who made similar allegations about Coughlin. Two more men called the diocese after that.
Coughlin, who worked full time for the chorus, hasn't taught or been associated with a parish in several years. He taught at St. Michael's Preparatory High School of the Norbertine Fathers, a small Catholic boarding school for boys at 19292 El Toro Road, from 1974 until 1989, and formerly served at the St. John the Baptist parish in Costa Mesa and at St. Anthony Claret parish in Anaheim, the diocese said.
The chorus grew from an Anaheim parish youth project of 11 boys who practiced with a church organist.
Since the beginning, Coughlin has overseen at least 500 boys who sang in the chorus. The group has a $500,000 annual budget financed through private fund raising, concert fees and album sales.
Among the chorus's credits are a television commercial for TWA and performances with many stars, including Bob Hope, Tony Bennett, Henry Winkler, Victor Borge and Steve Allen.
The chorus, which sings everything from Broadway show tunes to Dixieland to Sousa marches, has recorded three albums, including a Christmas release with the London Symphony Orchestra.
Costa Mesa Police Sgt. Mike Millington said he had been alerted to the Coughlin matter by the diocese, which sent him a copy of its Jan. 29 letter to the chorus board. But he said that none of the men have filed a police report containing the allegations, so no criminal investigation is underway.
Deputy Dist. Atty. David La Bahn said the statute of limitations in connection with alleged sexual molestation varies from one to six years, depending on the age of the victim and whether the charges are felonies or misdemeanors.
No civil suits regarding the allegations have been filed against Coughlin or the church.
The statute of limitations for civil suits alleging sexual abuse allows an alleged victim of youthful sexual abuse to file suit until 26 years of age, said Bryan F. Brown, a Newport Beach attorney and former prosecutor whose private practice specializes in such cases. If the person has repressed memories of an abuse, the statute allows a suit within three years after the memory returns, Brown said.
Some parents were upset when notified of the allegations by The Times, fearing that publicity will harm the chorus, the boys and their parents.
"It will destroy the work of over 100 parents and families," one parent said.
Board member Manrique said he would not comment on whether he thought that there was merit to the allegations because "I didn't do the investigating."
"The chorus needs to move on and get on with its life as an organization," he said. Coughlin had always shown great pride in his chorus, likening himself to a high school coach, and exhibited concern as he aged over who would take his place. He became interested in creating a chorus as a member of the St. John Seminary Choir in Boston. Coughlin said he moved from Massachusetts to California to be closer to family members.
The youngsters, from throughout Orange County, have to pass rigorous singing exams to qualify for the chorus, which has a long waiting list of boys wanting to join. Coughlin has said his goal was to provide serious vocal training for the boys.
One boy in a 1988 interview praised Coughlin highly and said he was widely respected and liked. "He's always there for us," the boy said. "We love him, and he loves us."