Ex-Priest’s Letter Is Key to His Arrest
A former Roman Catholic priest who allegedly impregnated a teenage parishioner and paid for her abortion 21 years ago was arrested Thursday in Newbury Park by Orange County sheriff’s deputies and charged with 10 counts of felony sexual assault on a minor.
A key piece of evidence against John Lenihan, who had been a popular pastor at St. Edward Church in Dana Point, was a letter he wrote to Pope John Paul II last March asking to be released from the priesthood. In it, Lenihan, 57, admitted to two affairs with teenagers starting in 1978.
Authorities said they obtained the correspondence, notes and other documents from the Diocese of Orange.
“They have given us all of these documents we have requested, with the exception of documents that were legitimately privileged,” said Orange County Dist. Atty. Tony Rackauckas.
That cooperation contrasts with the acrimonious relationship that has developed between prosecutors and Cardinal Roger M. Mahony, who heads the Archdiocese of Los Angeles. The archdiocese has withheld hundreds of requested church documents, citing 1st Amendment protections.
Lenihan, who has worked as a manager of a packaging company in Ventura County since he left the priesthood last year, was released from jail Thursday after posting $100,000 bail.
The Los Angeles and Orange dioceses paid $1.2 million to a San Francisco woman in April to settle civil-law molestation allegations against Lenihan. On the same day that was done, the woman filed a complaint at the criminal level with the Orange County Sheriff’s Department, which led to Thursday’s charges.
“It is heart-wrenching that a priest may have engaged in such grave misconduct warranting criminal charges and an arrest,” Bishop Tod D. Brown said in a statement. “It is our sincere hope that the system of justice will be upheld.”
Released on bail Thursday evening, Lenihan decided against wearing a cap or jacket to cover his face from reporters. Then, as he walked somberly from the county jail in Santa Ana to a friend’s sport utility vehicle, the friend said Lenihan would have no comment.
Prosecutors said another important element of their case was the corroborating testimony of Mary Grant, whom Lenihan admitted molesting for five years in the late 1970s, starting when she was 13.
Authorities said Lenihan’s alleged pattern of sexual abuse was similar with both teens, who attended St. Norbert Church in Orange. They accuse him of engaging in sex acts with the girls at various times as he drove them home from church. He also allegedly engaged the teens in sexual discussions on the phone.
Grant, now the Los Angeles regional director for the advocacy group Survivors Network for those Abused by Priests, said Lenihan’s arrest was the end of a decades-long fight to get him behind bars.
“Oh my God, I can’t believe this,” Grant said, crying as she learned of Thursday’s arrest. “I’m just shaking right now. I’m just so grateful for the courage of the other victim who came forward.”
Grant said she first told church officials about abuse by Lenihan in 1979 but was ignored. Statute-of-limitations problems have prevented prosecutors from filing charges in her case.
In 1991, Lenihan admitted the sexual relationship and the church paid Grant $25,000. The Diocese of Orange allowed the priest to continue his career, eventually appointing him pastor of the prosperous St. Edward parish in Dana Point.
Lenihan’s arrest caps 18 months of revelations about the sexual misconduct of the cleric, which paralleled the church’s national sexual abuse scandal.
Using the pseudonym “Father X,” he admitted to Los Angeles Times columnist Steve Lopez in 2001 to having had “numerous” sexual relationships with adult women.
A week later, Bishop Brown removed him from ministry and sent him to Canada for rehabilitation, a treatment church officials say he didn’t complete.
As for the $1.2-million settlement in April, Lenihan agreed to be removed from the priesthood, which only a pope can do.
In August, the Orange diocese paid $400,000 to settle a lawsuit that accused Lenihan of having had an affair with an emotionally troubled woman who had sought counseling from him. The woman said there was a sexual relationship that stopped only when the bishop sent the priest to Canada.
Times staff writer Claire Luna contributed to this report.