Father John Lenihan and Me
Photo courtesy Gustavo Arellano | Design: Dustin Ames
The release of the personnel file of John Lenihan, a pedophile priest who molested teenage girls at St. Norbert Catholic Church in Orange in the 1970s, happened this past November with a resounding thud. Few people seemed to care that its 268 pages further confirmed what the vast majority of Orange County doesn't want to acknowledge: that the Diocese of Orange is a pedophile-protection racket that's the envy of NAMBLA. No one raised a fuss that those documents showed that diocesan leaders knew Lenihan molested girls, and yet they promoted him in 1988 to the role of consultor (adviser to a bishop) in the middle of an "investigation"—I use quotation marks because this was the same case they had confirmed a decade earlier. And that letter buried in the files, the one written by attorney Peter Callahan in 1991 that has him blasting a woman who had bravely stepped forward to tell the world of her sexual abuse at the hands of Lenihan and mental abuse by the diocesan hierarchy—the one in which he vilifies her for going to the press for "actions . . . more vindictive than healing"? The public didn't spend their holidays demanding that Orange Bishop Kevin Vann boot the bum out, as Callahan is still legal counsel for the diocese.
The Lenihan file release came on the anniversary of two important celebrations for me: the 10th year since the Weekly started covering the Diocese of Orange sex-abuse scandal, and the 25th anniversary of my First Communion at St. Boniface Church in Anaheim. The priest that presided over this most important of sacraments? Lenihan. And it's this personal connection to the monster that has fueled my fusillades over the years against the snake-tongued guardians of my faith—and has taught me not only that few people care to listen (as evidenced by the non-news of the Lenihan file), but also that that's the reason to report.
My memories of Lenihan are limited. I remember his physical presence—tall, with light brown hair and a prominent birthmark on his face. I can't remember if he spoke with an Irish brogue, but I do remember all of us Mexicans loving him because he spoke Spanish. Imagine that, my young mind thought at the time, a gabacho who knew our language! Lenihan was crucial to my formation as a Catholic, his passion for the Gospel guiding the young me on the road to Catholicism's great parts: the caring for the poor and reviled, the fight against evil, the fidelity toward God.
I do vividly remember the furor that bubbled up when Lenihan's molesting ways came to light. Few parishioners believed our Padre Juan would do such sins, so the rumors quickly rose: The woman accusing Father John was a whore, an extortionist, a liar. These excuses continued even after Lenihan finally admitted he did, in fact, molest the girl, at which point a new narrative emerged: It happened so long ago, why should anyone care anymore? This sentiment is best expressed in Lenihan's files, in a private 1991 memo by Lawrence Baird, the longtime communications director for the Orange diocese who still ministers at Our Lady of Mount Carmel in Newport Beach. "Are those with objections without any awareness of their own failings?" he wrote, angry The Orange County Register had just exposed the diocese's pedo-protecting ways. "Father Lenihan has been an exemplary parish priest. Ask the parishioners!"
Lenihan's apologists shook my faith, but I was told then to get over it, that Father John "had a problem" and to leave things be. When he left St. Boniface in 1995, I figured church leaders had done the right thing and banned Lenihan from the priesthood, so I gave him little thought afterward. Boy, was I wrong: Not only did the Orange diocese transfer him to St. Edward the Confessor in Dana Point, but incoming bishop Tod D. Brown also reappointed Lenihan as a consultor. I wouldn't find any of this out, though, until 2001, when Brown finally removed him—not for molesting girls, but for admitting to Los Angeles Times columnist Steve Lopez that he had multiple consensual sexual relationships with adult women as a priest. So diddling teen girls was fine—but having relations with adult women wasn't? Heckuva job, Brownie!
This background served as my fuel when I finally began covering the scandal, a spark about which I've previously written (see "The Year In Keeping the Faith," Dec. 30, 2004). Thinking of Lenihan and how so many protected him would enrage me and get me through spells when I thought no one other than sex-abuse survivors cared about our coverage. But the path toward the Truth is a lonely one, so I'm one of the guilty ignorants when it comes to the Lenihan file: A sex-abuse survivor forwarded it to me in November (released by the law offices of Ray Boucher, who has represented hundreds of pedo-priest victims), and I didn't get around to reading it until last week. Me a decade ago would've been all over it immediately; now, I have no excuse other than melancholy fatigue.
Because, as I look back at our decade of coverage, I see it's one giant failure. Although Orange County may have a new bishop in Vann, he has yet to exile any of the men who let Lenihan roam all those years. Lenihan, meanwhile, never served any prison time for his crimes and is now happily married, living in South County and still beloved by his former parishioners. The Diocese of Orange grows, more money rushes in—and sex-abuse survivors are told the past is the past and get out of the way of progress.
It's a depressing reality, one that got me down when I realized all the bombshells in the Lenihan file would make little difference. Then I see the picture on the cover this week: me at my First Communion. It has greeted me every time I open my main binder on the Diocese of Orange sex-abuse scandal. I keep it there for a couple of reasons; among them, it reminds me there was a time in my life when I didn't wear glasses, as well as that my forehead has always been that big. But when I look at my young self, I'm also reminded I was lucky to never suffer abuse by a priest, unlike too many Latino boys my age in Orange County during the 1980s and 1990s. I'm reminded that, even in my youth, I was right to be revolted about this scandal while the vast majority of Catholics didn't have a problem.
And I'm reminded anew why we cover the Orange diocese sex-abuse scandal: Whether the revelations happened last week or 30 years ago, whether those in charge are still around or dead, it's Orange County's worst-ever crime, one in which justice is nowhere near served. OC doesn't care about Lenihan anymore—and that's why we write and will continue to do so until God calls us to our reward, whatever it may be.
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