McKnight Shifts

Mater Dei High School doesn't begin classes until September, but the powerful Catholic prep academy is already embroiled in a staff battle. In this case, the warring parties aren't teachers fighting over copier privileges—rather, they're the two men most responsible for making Mater Dei Mater Dei, and they're battling over the facts of a school-related sex-abuse case.

In one corner: Mater Dei President Patrick Murphy, an administrator at the Santa Ana high school since 1990 and a major force behind a multimillion-dollar fund-raising drive to modernize its campus. In the other: Gary McKnight, head coach for the school's famed boys' basketball teams since 1982. Both men have given depositions for a lawsuit filed by a former Mater Dei student who says McKnight's former assistant, Jeff Andrade, sexually molested her during the mid-1990s. And their depositions don't match.

Newport Beach attorney John Manly has deposed dozens of former and current Mater Dei officials in the past two years for this case. But the most explosive claims have involved McKnight and Murphy. The revelations began late last year, when Andrade dropped nearly a decade of denials and admitted he had sex with his then-15-year-old victim—in McKnight's office, even. He also divulged that McKnight allowed Andrade to help organize fund-raisers for the school's athletic programs as recently as 2002. Then, as now, Andrade worked through Varsity Gold, one of the country's premier fund-raisers for high schools.

Murphy confirmed Andrade's assertions in a Jan. 8 deposition, telling Manly and his partner, Vince Finaldi, that McKnight approached him with a fund-raising idea involving Andrade a couple of years after Andrade's forced resignation in 1996. Murphy went on to note that McKnight defied his explicit orders not to work with Andrade and that school officials reprimanded McKnight for the action around 2002. Mater Dei's president also recalled discussing Andrade's molestation charges with McKnight when they first emerged in the 1990s, threatening to put the coach on administrative leave after he barged into an interview between Andrade and school officials (see “McKnight Fall,” Jan. 25).

But in a July 11 deposition taken by Manly and filed as a public record with the Orange County Superior Court, McKnight denied many of Murphy's charges. McKnight claimed he never suspected Andrade's guilt until “some rag newspaper” published it—namely, the Weekly. The portly coach told Manly he believed Andrade resigned on his own and insisted he didn't know that Mater Dei officials forced Andrade out under the threat of dismissal. Asked by Manly if he thought Mater Dei officials believed Andrade to be innocent, McKnight replied, “I have no idea what they knew or didn't know. I just know what I know. And, you know, I didn't know.”

McKnight did admit to helping Andrade get a fund-raising contract at Mater Dei, but he claims Murphy never barred him from doing so. “No. I don't remember,” he told Manly. “If Pat [told me not to], I definitely wouldn't do it.” He also verified Murphy's stance that Mater Dei school officials sent McKnight a memo around 2002 warning him not to allow Andrade on campus anymore, but he denied being reprimanded by school officials for bringing Andrade back in the first place.

Then the deposition took a turn for the bizarre. Manly brought up the Weekly. “Now, it's my understanding that you have threatened to sue a newspaper in connection with stories written about this case,” he asked McKnight.

“I'm still thinking about it,” McKnight replied.

“And why are you doing that? Why are you thinking about suing?” Manly shot back.

“I felt some of the facts were wrong.”

“And what was incorrect about the articles, in your opinion?”

“I'd have to read through them,” McKnight responded.

At that point, Manly pulled out two Weekly articles on the Andrade lawsuit (“McKnight Fall” and “McKnight Errant,” Dec. 21, 2006) and made McKnight read through them. After reading the pieces for a bit, all McKnight could object to is how the Weekly described his gait. “It says here I waddle,” he told Manly. “I don't think I waddle.”

Manly then read some passages from the stories, passages that had prompted McKnight's Mater Dei-paid lawyer, Ernest C. Chen, to send the Weekly at least three retraction demands. McKnight did not dispute the facts in any of them. Chen objected at that point, claiming the article contained “implication[s] that were potentially actionable, even though the statement itself may not contain a false assertion.” A presiding judge overruled Chen's complaint, and the fun continued for another hour.


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