Let Us Prey

Despite recent conviction, critics say the DA goes easy on child-molesting priests

Illustration by Bob AulWhen Judge Richard W. Stanford sent Father Gerardo Tanilong to prison last week, it was very nearly a first for Orange County.

Tanilong, who most recently served at Our Lady of Guadalupe in Santa Ana's Delhi barrio, had pleaded guilty in January to charges of fondling a 15-year-old girl while riding in a car with the victim and her family.

The maximum penalty for Tanilong's crime—two felony counts of lewd conduct with a minor—is three years and eight months. But deputy district attorney Sheila Hanson asked the judge for just one year, with three years probation. Stanford countered with six months, reasoning that Tanilong "immediately expressed remorse" for his crime, that the groping did not constitute "substantial sexual contact," and that Tanilong "is not a danger to society."

"The People were satisfied that the system works," Hanson later told reporters. "[The sentence] is reasonable."

However you set the price for groping a kid, Hanson has reason to cheer: though the Diocese of Orange admits it harbored at least 22 child-molesting priests in its 28-year history, Tanilong is just the second county Catholic priest ever convicted of sexually abusing a minor. You have to go back 18 years for the last conviction, the 1986 trial of Father Andrew Christian Andersen. He pleaded guilty to 26 counts of inappropriately touching four altar boys while serving at St. Bonaventure in Huntington Beach.

Though such convictions are rare, the office of DA Tony Rackauckas is crowing. "Since Tony has been here, we've filed every case we possibly could. I can't say we've had a difficult time convicting guilty priests," says DA spokeswoman Susan Schroeder. "If you consider [the Tanilong case], you could say we're batting 100 percent."

Schroeder's clearly no baseball fan. But she has some evidence that the DA is aggressively pursuing child-molesting priests. Last year, Rackauckas issued arrest warrants for four priests wanted on child-molestation charges. One killed himself in Mexico with federal agents closing in; three others escaped trial because of a Supreme Court decision that changed the statute of limitations.

But critics continue to say the DA goes easy on priests who prey on kids.

Ryan DiMaria alleges he was molested by his school's principal, Father Michael Harris, while a junior at Santa Margarita High School in the early '90s. When DiMaria filed a civil lawsuit in 1999 against Harris, he had every reason to believe Harris would face jail time.

"We met with a deputy DA and let him know we had all the evidence he would need—there was more evidence in [the Harris] case than you can imagine," recalled DiMaria

A 1994 psychological report included in the civil trial concluded that Harris was sexually attracted to adolescents and warned, "It has been our experience that in many cases like these, the [sexual abuse] allegations that have surfaced are only a few of the actual incidents of abuse that have occurred." Other evidence about Harris had been public for years, though, including the fact that the Diocese of Orange prohibited Harris from presiding over Mass during the mid-'90s after accusations that he repeatedly fondled at least four other boys.

The DA had a year to file criminal charges against Harris from the day that DiMaria reported his claims. But DiMaria says that calls to county prosecutors indicated the case had stalled. Frustrated, his lawyers frantically called the DA to remind investigators of the impending one-year deadline. This time, according to DiMaria, the DA responded immediately: "We got a meeting soon after the call. The day after that, they informed us that they were not interested in filing charges. Not enough evidence."

Not enough evidence? A few months after the meeting, in 2001, Orange County Superior Court Judge Jim Gray ordered Harris, the Orange Diocese, and the Archdiocese of Los Angeles to publicly apologize to DiMaria and four other alleged Harris victims and to pay DiMaria $5.2 million in damages as part of a pretrial settlement. That court order represents the largest single-plaintiff settlement against the American Catholic Church and cemented the Orange Diocese's reputation for covering up priestly pederasty. But it remains a hollow victory for DiMaria.

"Not only did Harris serve no jail time, but also I felt then and now that the DA never had any intention of filing charges against him," says DiMaria, who now works for Manly & McGuire, a Costa Mesa law firm with about 20 sex-abuse lawsuits pending against the diocese. "The whole thing really smelled the way that it played out. The unfortunate reality is that politics sometimes plays an ugly role in justice."

DA spokeswoman Schroeder denied that politics plays any part in her office's treatment of Catholic priests suspected of molesting children. "We have a duty to file cases only when we could prove that case beyond a reasonable doubt," she said. "All I can say is that we have done our due diligence in filing every possible [priest-molestation] case that we could."

Tell that to Mary Grant. In 1991, the Orange Diocese settled a lawsuit with Grant for $25,000 after she alleged that Father John Lenihan had sexually molested her during the late 1970s while he served at St. Norbert's in Orange. In the course of the investigation, the Anaheim Police Department recorded Lenihan on tape and in depositions graphically describing his encounters with the teenage Grant. At the time of the civil suit, the statute of limitations had run out, and Lenihan wasn't eligible for criminal prosecution. But authorities didn't bother to reopen the case in 1994, when the California legislature erased the statute-of-limitations law on child molestation.

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