Former priest charged with sexually abusing children in Palmdale and Redondo Beach
A former Catholic priest has been charged with sexually assaulting four children in Los Angeles County while serving at churches in Palmdale and Redondo Beach in the late 1990s and early 2000s, prosecutors said Wednesday.
Christopher John Cunningham, 58, was charged with 12 counts of committing lewd acts upon a minor, according to a news release issued by the L.A. County district attorney’s office.
Prosecutors allege that Cunningham sexually assaulted an 11-year-old boy on two occasions between 1995 and 1997 while serving as a priest at St. Mary’s Catholic Church in Palmdale. Cunningham also molested another boy at the child’s home between 1996 and 1998, according to the district attorney’s office.
The California attorney general’s investigation into how the Los Angeles Archdiocese — and potentially other dioceses in California — handled abuse allegations over the years is a major step for prosecutors.
After being reassigned to St. Lawrence Martyr Catholic Church in Redondo Beach, prosecutors say, Cunningham sexually abused a 10-year-old boy and a 12-year-old boy repeatedly between 1998 and 2001.
“The victims were innocent children who have spent most of their lives with the trauma caused by the abuse alleged in this case,” Los Angeles County Dist. Atty. George Gascón said in a statement. “My office is committed to holding accountable anyone who abuses and takes advantage of our children, especially when they hold a position of trust.”
The charges were filed this month, and an arraignment has yet to be scheduled. Greg Risling, a spokesman for the district attorney’s office, said the criminal investigation into Cunningham began in 2017 after the Sheriff’s Department received an allegation of sexual misconduct against the former priest.
Cunningham was arrested Wednesday in Rhode Island, where he had been working as a clinical psychologist, according to a report in the Providence Journal. The state department of health previously told the newspaper that it was unaware of the past allegations against Cunningham before certifying him.
Cunningham has been accused of assault multiple times, court records show. He first entered the priesthood in 1990 and served at St. Christopher Catholic Church in West Covina, according to a 2017 lawsuit accusing him of sexual assault.
A complaint about Cunningham’s behavior and conduct with young boys was first made in 1994, according to the lawsuit filed by Pasadena attorney Anthony DeMarco, who has represented several people accusing Cunningham of abuse. His behavior allegedly continued at St. Mary’s, where prosecutors now say he assaulted two boys.
“At Saint Mary’s, Father Cunningham continued his practice of spending extraordinary amounts of time alone with teen boys. Taking them to the movies, often one-on-one, taking them to ice cream one-on-one. Having them in his rectory bedroom, often one-on-one. Wrestling with them and hugging them,” the suit read. “Father Cunningham would further regularly discuss sex with teens in his religious education classes.”
DeMarco also alleged that church officials have destroyed records of the initial complaints against Cunningham. In a statement, the archdiocese insisted it did not become aware of allegations of sexual abuse against Cunningham until a media inquiry in 2015 following the filing of a civil suit against the ex-priest.
“The Archdiocese was not aware of any information concerning these allegations prior to being advised of the civil lawsuit,” the statement read. “Today’s announcement of Fr. Cunningham’s arrest is the first time that the Archdiocese was informed of these current criminal allegations. The Archdiocese has not been advised of the names of the alleged victims in the current criminal matter. The Archdiocese continues to cooperate fully with law enforcement regarding allegations made against Fr. Cunningham.”
Cunningham was removed from the ministry in 2005 due to “boundary violations, which are unrelated to the current criminal matter.” The spokeswoman did not elaborate on what those violations were.
One year prior to his removal, Cunningham allegedly molested another young boy at St. Louise de Marillac Catholic Church in Covina, according to a separate lawsuit, which has since been settled under undisclosed terms.
Attorney Courtney Kiehl, who represents one of the accusers now at the center of the Los Angeles case against Cunningham, said the charges announced Wednesday marked a victory for abuse survivors.
“I know the toll this type of abuse takes on all aspects of a person’s life and will be eternally grateful to those who believed these victim-survivors and are committed to holding their abuser accountable,” she said in a statement.
Times staff writer Richard Winton contributed to this report.
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