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O.C. bishop decries ‘media frenzy’ over alleged hazing at Mater Dei High School

Diocese of Orange Bishop Kevin Vann walks in a procession before blessing the Cathedral Memorial Gardens cemetery.
In a letter sent to Mater Dei community, Bishop Kevin Vann decried the “media frenzy” over two alleged violent incidents involving players from the storied Monarchs football team.
(Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

The Roman Catholic bishop of Orange County this week threw his support behind the leadership of Mater Dei High School amid increasing scrutiny over its handling of violent incidents involving members of the school’s storied football team.

In a letter sent to the Mater Dei community Tuesday night, Bishop Kevin Vann and Diocese of Orange Supt. Erin Barisano also decried the media coverage of two lawsuits that have raised questions about accountability for alleged violent behavior on the Monarch football team. One lawsuit described a locker-room hazing ritual that left a player with a traumatic brain injury; the other, a planned attack that broke a basketball player’s jaw.

“The recent media frenzy about the conduct of players on the Mater Dei High School football team is both concerning and saddening, to say the least,” wrote Vann and Barisano in the letter, which was also signed by two auxiliary bishops. “We are very sorry that this or any incident led to a student being injured and do not condone any conduct that places students at risk.”

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Mater Dei, the consensus No. 1 team in the nation, faces Serra High School from San Mateo in the state championship Saturday.

Mater Dei is still grappling with the fallout from the lawsuit filed late last month that accused the school and the diocese of negligence, violation of California’s anti-hazing laws and infliction of emotional distress. The complaint, filed by the family of a former football player, described a culture of hazing and a “rigorous, cutthroat” attitude at an institution that “protects its storied athletic reputation at all costs.”

Mater Dei High’s elite football program is home to a culture of hazing that led to a player’s traumatic brain injury, according to a lawsuit filed Tuesday.

The student’s injury stemmed from a Feb. 4 bout of “Bodies,” in which two players punch each other between the shoulders and the waist, the lawsuit said. The student agreed to square off against a player who was 50 pounds heavier in an “effort to fit in and show he was tough enough,” according to the complaint.

In video footage reviewed by The Times, the two students throw punches at each other as another player can be heard shouting the N-word off camera. The larger player lands two punches on the smaller player’s head, the footage shows. The smaller student covers his face with his hand before being punched in the side of the head a third time.

“Hey, chill, chill, chill, chill, chill,” a player can be heard saying off camera. The smaller player then shouts: “The f— are you doing? It’s Bodies.”

The Santa Ana Police Department recommended that a felony assault charge be filed against the larger player, but Orange County Dist. Atty. Todd Spitzer said last week that his office had not found “evidence of hazing or any other crime that we can prove beyond a reasonable doubt.”

Vann said he was “encouraged” by Spitzer’s statement, which “concluded that no one was involved in the conflict against their will” and confirmed “the absence of evidence of hazing at Mater Dei.”

Even so, Vann and the other signers said, “we do not condone the conduct involved and deeply regret that a student was injured.”

Vann asked for patience and support for Mater Dei’s new president, Father Walter Jenkins, and “the process of identifying areas of improvement and initiating changes that embody the tradition of Honor, Glory, and Love at Mater Dei and renews our commitment to mission and Catholic identity.”

The details of the beating, described in a May lawsuit, follow weeks of controversy for the storied Santa Ana football program.

Jenkins, who was hired after both incidents occurred, told the school last week that he will bring in an independent firm to investigate safety practices in student athletics. Vann and the other letter signers said that the firm will have “no connection to the school, the diocese or the Catholic Church.”

The lawsuit over the athlete’s broken jaw, filed in May, describes an “orchestrated attack” in 2019 planned by a Mater Dei student who erroneously believed that a basketball player had shared an embarrassing video of him online. The classmate sent two football players to a house in Irvine to find the basketball player, confronting him on the front lawn as he walked toward an Uber, the lawsuit said.

The players punched him in the back of the head, then punched him repeatedly in the head and in the face, knocking him to the ground and leaving him disoriented, the lawsuit said. The basketball player was left with a broken jaw and severe injuries to the back of his head, the lawsuit said.

“We look forward to sharing more with you about the efforts underway at Mater Dei to ensure everything reasonably possible is being done to enhance the safety of our students,” the letter concluded. “Fr. Jenkins said it best: We ask and pray that all parties interested in Mater Dei’s future have patience and trust, draped by the mantle of Mary, Mother of God.”


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