The Catholic Church disclosed Monday that it has paid $5.2 million and made significant changes in the way it handles allegations of sexual abuse to settle a lawsuit alleging that a prominent Orange County priest and onetime high school principal molested one of his students.
The agreement between the Los Angeles and Orange dioceses and Ryan DiMaria of Laguna Hills appears to be the largest publicly disclosed payout of its kind to an individual in church history, experts said. Under the new guidelines, the dioceses have agreed to create an independent victim assistance program for youths who say they have been molested.
Orange County Superior Court Judge James Gray also ordered the dioceses to issue public apologies to DiMaria and four other teenage boys who claimed Msgr. Michael A. Harris molested them.
Harris, nicknamed “Father Hollywood” in the Orange County Catholic community because of his charisma and good looks, agreed under the settlement to apply to the Vatican to be removed from the priesthood. But in a statement, he steadfastly denied that he molested anyone and accused church leaders of settling the case “for their own business reasons.”
Diocese of Orange Bishop Tod D. Brown issued a statement Monday expressing “profound sorrow” for the five accusers and saluting their courage for coming forward.
“Although Michael Harris continues to deny any wrongdoing, the Diocese of Orange has grave doubts about his innocence in these matters, taking into consideration the number of complaints made against him, the similarity of those complaints and the apparent sincerity of the persons making these statements,” Brown said.
Tod Tamberg, spokesman for the Los Angeles archdiocese, said officials there are still in communication with DiMaria’s attorney over the final wording of an upcoming public apology.
“Sexual abuse is a serious sin. It devastates its victims physically, emotionally and spiritually,” the archdiocese said in a statement. ". . . Such activity simply will not be tolerated in our church.”
The church has been tarnished over the past two decades by a string of allegations of molestations by priests.
Experts said the church is increasingly leery about taking cases to trial after juries in recent years ordered large damage awards. In 1997, for example, a Dallas jury ordered the church to pay $119 million to 11 men who were allegedly molested as altar boys. An out-of-court settlement was later reached for $23 million.
Sylvia Demarest, who represented the plaintiffs in that trial, said the DiMaria case appears to be the biggest payout for a single victim and is also significant because it was agreed to before the case came to trial. She and other experts said the settlement breaks new ground because of the regulations it establishes for how the church deals with future cases.
Church officials continued to deny a central charge contained in the DiMaria lawsuit: That the dioceses were aware of sex allegations while Harris was principal of Mater Dei High School in Santa Ana, an Orange County social and athletic powerhouse, but still picked the priest in 1987 to head their new showcase Santa Margarita High School in southern Orange County.
It was not until 1994 that the Orange County diocese placed the principal on administrative leave and took the unusual step of prohibiting him from working as a priest. Harris has since started a business that builds low-income housing with the help of government funds. Some of Orange County’s most prominent businessmen, including developer William Lyon and philanthropist Roger Kirwan, serve on his board of directors.
DiMaria’s attorney, Katherine Freberg, said the size of the settlement should be viewed as an admission of guilt by the church, and that it represents an acknowledgment of its failure to take action as soon as it learned of the accusations.
The district attorney’s office reviewed DiMaria’s accusations last year but found insufficient evidence to file criminal charges against Harris.
Harris said in a statement that he did nothing wrong: “Monsignor Harris is extremely proud of his work with high school students and counts hundreds of them [as] close friends and supporters.”
DiMaria, now 28, said in an interview that he hoped the settlement will send a message to the Catholic Church and lead to reforms in the way officials deal with molestation accusations.
“I just wanted to bring some recognition that these things happened and you can’t just turn a blind eye to them,” said DiMaria, who recently took the bar exam and plans to become a tax attorney. “The lawsuit was always about making a change and slowing it down or stopping it.”
DiMaria said Harris molested him 1991, and that at first, he blamed himself. He said he spent five years battling depression and thoughts of suicide. He finally told his family five years after he claims Harris molested him. His parents immediately confronted church officials, who they said tried to cover it up.
“We thought we were doing the church a favor,” said his mother, Diane DiMaria. “What we found out a long time later is that they knew much more [about Harris] and really didn’t care. They were trying to keep us quiet about it.”
The 11 changes to church procedures provided for in the settlement--which Ryan DiMaria’s attorney dubbed “Ryan’s Law"--include monitoring of schools and parishes, establishing a toll-free phone number and Web site for anonymous abuse complaints and forbidding priests to be alone in social settings with minors. Some of the rules are new, others reinforce existing regulations.
The church also agreed to allow an independent group to regularly interview departing students about possible sexual misconduct at St. John’s Seminary in Camarillo, from which Harris graduated in 1972. Harris moved to Orange County from the seminary and became a teacher at Mater Dei in 1975, creating an easy rapport with students and parents. He took over as school principal in 1978. In 1987, he was asked by the church to become founding principal of Santa Margarita Catholic High School in Rancho Santa Margarita.
Harris’ humor, intelligence and friendliness made him a well-respected figure in the Orange County Catholic and philanthropic communities. He was credited with raising nearly $26 million for the construction of Santa Margarita High School.
DiMaria claims Harris groped, fondled and sexually molested him twice, according to the lawsuit. He contends that it occurred 11 years after another teen lodged a similar complaint about Harris to G. Patrick Ziemann, then a priest in Los Angeles. Ziemann would later be promoted to Bishop of Santa Rosa, a post he resigned in July 1999 after disclosure of his affair with another priest. The diocese later paid that priest $535,000. Ziemann had been Harris’ spiritual advisor at St. John’s Seminary.
Besides DiMaria, four other people are to receive public apologies from the church: David A. Price, who claimed that Harris molested him at Mater Dei between 1979 and 1983; Lenora Colice, on behalf of her son, the late Vincent Colice, who said he was molested from 1977 to 1979 while a Mater Dei student; former Mater Dei student Mark Curran, who alleged Harris molested him in 1979; and Larry Raheb, who claimed he was molested while seeking spiritual counseling from Harris in 1979.
The four other accusers were not plaintiffs in the lawsuit, but DiMaria’s attorneys cited their allegations as evidence. None of the others will receive financial compensation, and none of their allegations resulted in criminal charges or civil judgments against Harris, who denies any wrongdoing.
Diocesan officials insist they first became aware of claims against Harris in November 1993. At that time, Lenora Colice wrote a letter to Harris, with a copy to the Diocese of Orange, claiming that her son had been molested by Harris more than a decade earlier. She said her son told her about it on his deathbed a week earlier, while in the final stages of AIDS, which he contracted in later years and did not attribute to any relationship with Harris.
“I will never ever forget or forgive what you did to my son,” Colice wrote to Harris.
Harris wrote back to Lenora Colice, saying, “It may not be of any consolation, but I am very sorry.”
DiMaria’s attorneys later used the letter as evidence of Harris’ guilt.
But Harris’ attorney has maintained in previous interviews that his letter showed only sympathy, and was not an admission of guilt.
Harris stepped down as principal of Santa Margarita High School in October 1994, citing stress. About 350 parents and students held a rally for him at a park near the school.
Weeks later, Harris spent four days at St. Luke’s Institute in Maryland, the Catholic Church’s medical treatment center for troubled priests. Church doctors recommended that he be admitted for in-patient treatment and have no unsupervised contact with minors, according to court records.
Doctors offered a psychiatric diagnosis, records show, finding that Harris was sexually attracted to adolescent boys.
“Our clinical team believes that there is substance to the allegations,” the institute report said. “It has been our experience that in many cases like these, the allegations that have surfaced are only a few of the actual incidents of abuse that have occurred.” The church unsuccessfully fought all the way to the California Supreme Court in an effort to keep the report confidential.
Within days of the evaluation, a Diocese of Orange spokesman, Msgr. Lawrence Baird, defended Harris to newspaper reporters and described him as “an icon to the priesthood.”
Despite the publicity, Harris didn’t withdraw from the tightknit community that always had showered him with love and respect. He continued to officiate at weddings and funerals, and wore a special pass that allowed him into the infield at Santa Margarita football games.
Msgr. John Urell, who investigated DiMaria’s initial complaint against Harris for the Orange County diocese, sent Harris two cordial letters in 1996 and 1997 urging him to stop acting and appearing in public as a priest.
Harris eventually visited the school less frequently and set his sights on new goals. He earned a doctorate in education from Pepperdine University in Malibu. Using his connections in the Orange County philanthropic community, he encouraged several wealthy benefactors to serve on the board of directors of his new venture to buy and operate low-income mobile-home parks.
Harris incorporated a series of nonprofit organizations, using the name Caritas, the Catholic Church’s international social-service organization. In the next three years, Harris obtained government financing to buy mobile-home parks in Brea, Lancaster, Vista and Yucaipa.
According to documents filed for 1999, the corporations had combined assets of $33.6 million, financed by $36.4 million in long-term municipal bonds and notes. Harris reported receiving a salary of $91,000 plus expenses in 1998, the most recent year on file.
Over the past decade, Catholic officials from the Vatican on down have said they’ve taken important steps to prevent molestation. But some scholars, victims’ groups and plaintiffs’ attorneys said the church still has much work to do.
“We’re way short in purging the institution of the dimension of denial,” said Jeffrey Anderson, a Minnesota attorney who has represented more than 500 accusers. “This is about institutional failure, not an individual straying from his vows.”
Times staff writers Monte Morin, Larry B. Stammer and Daniel Yi contributed to this story.