USC’s Catholic Chaplain Accused

Times Staff Writer

The Roman Catholic chaplain at USC has been temporarily removed from his post pending an investigation of allegations involving inappropriate physical conduct with an adult, a Los Angeles Archdiocese spokesman said Monday.

Father William Messenger, the 55-year-old pastor at Our Savior Catholic Center, was placed on administrative leave Friday while USC and the archdiocese conduct an investigation, said archdiocesan spokesman Tod Tamberg. Messenger has served at USC since 1993.

Tamberg declined to offer details about the complainant or the allegation. But other sources said a male USC student brought the complaint.


In a statement read to Our Savior parishioners at weekend Masses, the archdiocese and the USC Office of Religious Life said they had “received a report about a serious violation of ministerial ethics and essential professional boundaries involving inappropriate physical conduct” by Messenger.

The statement also said that his being placed on leave “does not imply any judgment about the factual nature of the reports but does provide an opportunity to review the matter with the care that it deserves.”

Tamberg said church officials had met with the complainant, who asked for confidentiality, and said they were extending pastoral care. He also said church officials had notified police about the case. The LAPD detective they informed could not be reached for comment.

Tamberg added that the archdiocese would complete its internal investigation into the case whether criminal charges were filed or not.

The results of that probe -- by former FBI officials hired by the church -- will be referred to the archdiocese’s Clergy Misconduct Oversight Board. The board will make recommendations about it to Cardinal Roger M. Mahony; those could range from no action to permanent removal from the priesthood.

“Even if you don’t have a prosecutable crime, it doesn’t absolve us of the responsibility to make sure the church is safe for all people,” Tamberg said.


Messenger, a native Californian, was raised in Norwalk and ordained in 1977. He served five parishes in Los Angeles, Long Beach and Alhambra before joining USC’s Catholic Center. Popular among students, Messenger helped found “Theology on Tap,” a monthly gathering to drink beer and debate religious topics. He is active in interfaith pursuits and peace and justice issues.

Messenger could not be reached for comment and Catholic Center staff members declined to comment. The center was nearly deserted Monday afternoon during a campus exam period.

Rabbi Susan Laemmle, dean of the USC Office of Religious Life, praised the archdiocese’s action in the matter. When university officials notified church officials of the complaint, she said, their first words were “I’m so sorry.”

“They’ve been terrific from beginning to end,” she said. Besides offering help to the complainant, she said, church officials have focused on “the enormity of the event and the sadness -- not damage control.”

She declined to discuss specifics of the allegation.


Times staff writer Susana Enriquez contributed to this report.