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Ex-priest remained in L.A. Unified despite red flags

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An ex-priest who allegedly admitted a sexual relationship with a minor remained employed by the Los Angeles Unified School District for more than a decade despite several warning flags about his background, according to interviews and records.

Joseph Pina is also said in internal church documents to have admitted to repeated “boundary issues” with women throughout his career in the clergy. An internal 1993 psychological evaluation by the L.A. Archdiocese concluded that Pina “remains a serious risk for acting out.”

Nine years later, L.A. Unified hired him as a community outreach coordinator for its $19.5-billion school-construction effort. In that position, Pina came in frequent contact with families at community events but did not work directly with children in schools.

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No allegations of impropriety have emerged during Pina’s employment with L.A. Unified. But L.A. schools chief John Deasy said the district has severed ties with Pina, adding that the district should have never hired him given his background.

A church spokesman said Monday that it did warn the school district in the form of a questionnaire that L.A. Unified sent to the archdiocese in August 2001.

“In response to the question: ‘Should the Los Angeles Unified School District consider anything else regarding this candidate’s employment suitability?’, the archdiocese checked the box ‘yes,’ adding that we would ‘not recommend him for a position in the schools,’ ” Tod Tamberg, director of media relations, said in a statement.

“In response to the next question on the form, ‘Would you hire this person again?’ the archdiocese checked the box ‘no,’ ” Tamberg said.

“There is no indication in our files of any follow-up from LAUSD once the form was returned to the LAUSD,” he said in the statement.

Deasy said the district was researching any past contact with the archdiocese as part of a larger investigation into how Pina was hired.

The district could find no record of the questionnaire, Deasy said. At that time, the facilities division handled its own hiring, to insulate the building program from potential political influence over billions of dollars in contracts.

The church waited years to report Pina’s alleged sexual misconduct to police. And Deasy questioned why the church wouldn’t do more to warn school officials about molestation allegations.

“Why wouldn’t someone pick up the phone and notify us if there was something as egregious as is now being alleged?” he said.

But there were other red flags that were not acted on.

The allegations against Pina were included in two front-page Times stories about the priest scandal in 2002 and 2006.

A district internal review has determined that a staffer noticed Pina’s name in published accounts, Deasy said. The employee passed the information to senior officials in the facilities division, Deasy said.

The employee recalled that officials decided to take no action because Pina had not been convicted of a crime, according to Deasy.

In 2002, the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department investigated alleged abuse of a girl by Pina that occurred between 1977 and 1980, starting when she was 14. The case was eventually dropped because the crime predated the year established by law for pursuing older priest-abuse cases. The alleged victim “provides a detailed and graphic account of events,” Sgt. Dan Scott, of the special victims unit, said as he read through the file.

Pina refused to talk to investigators. Scott said the file does not note whether investigators contacted the school district about their findings.

Pina could not be reached for comment Monday by The Times.

Church records released last week recount how Pina was attracted to a victim, an eighth-grade girl, when he saw her in a Snow White costume.

“She dressed as Snow White.... I had a crush on Snow White, so I started to open myself up to her,” he told the psychologist. “I felt like I fell in love with her. I got sexually involved with her, but never intercourse. She was about 17 when we got involved sexually, and it continued until she was about 19.”

In a report sent to a top aide of Cardinal Roger Mahony, the psychologist expressed concern that the abuse was never reported to law enforcement.

Pina’s evaluation also includes a recommendation “to take appropriate measures and precautions to [ensure] that he is not in a setting where he can victimize others.”

Pina’s resignation from a Lynwood parish in 1998 — his last church posting — was due to later alleged misconduct involving women, after Pina acknowledged in a letter to parishioners his “overstepping of boundaries with an adult woman in the parish.” Pina also wrote that he was sorry for his “aggressive, flippant and inappropriate manner” with others.

A church memo directing him how to prepare his statement advised him not to “over disclose” and to “disclose about this problem, not the past.”

The church later revealed that three adult women had complained, and the parents of a 17-year-old accused Pina of “grooming” the young woman for inappropriate contact.

Pina’s next job was as a production manager at a Mexican bakery in Whittier, according to the resume he submitted as part of his application to L.A. Unified.

Among his accomplishments, Pina said that he “administered the largest Catholic Hispanic parish in East Los Angeles (over 10,000 families).”

References, he added, were “available upon request.”

Pina cleared a fingerprint and FBI check in December 2001 and was hired Jan. 7, 2002, for the outreach position.

Pina, 66, was laid off from his full-time district job last year but returned to work episodically to organize events. He was paid for work as recently as January.

One person who worked with Pina was Scott Folsom, who served on the committee that oversaw school-bond spending.

He said that part of Pina’s job was organizing “student performers at events like groundbreakings and ribbon cuttings — the sort of work I would characterize as ‘kid wrangling.’ Yes, other adults were present, but ...”

Another person who recalled interacting with Pina was Granada Hills activist Richard Fisk. He remembered Pina as “my go-to guy” for information about a new high school construction project. “He was always very cordial and answered every email or phone call.”

In recent years, L.A. Unified has tightened contacts with local law enforcement agencies after several high-profile embarrassments involving accused molesters who remained employed for years.

For its part, the archdiocese said it now routinely sends warning letters to the school system when it learns of any issue that could endanger children.

howard.blume@latimes.com

richard.winton@latimes.com

Victoria Kim contributed to this report.


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