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Church in Crisis

Making distinctions: A bishop defends his actions

Attorney John Manly illustrated the hierarchy’s attitude toward sex abuse by paraphrasing a June 19, 2001, deposition he took from Bishop Norman F. McFarland, now retired bishop of Orange.

“I asked the bishop, ‘Would you ever put a predator who had molested a child back in a parish?’ ‘No.’ ‘Would you ever put a predator who had molested a child back into a parish with a school?’ ‘No.’ ‘Would you ever, ever put a predator back in parish circulation knowing he was a predator?’ ‘No.’

“ ‘Your Excellency, could you please explain why John Lenihan was a pastor at St. Edward’s?’

“ ‘Well,’ he said, ‘that’s different.’

“ ‘What do you mean, sir?’

“ ‘You said child molester. As I understand it, these victims were adolescents. And you know many adolescents are fully developed and precocious.’ ”

Said Manly to the meeting, “Ladies and gentlemen, that is a view of the soul of the hierarchy of our church. That is what is at stake here.”

NCR asked McFarland how he remembered the exchange. The bishop sent the deposition. Excerpts follow:

Q (Manly): Was it your policy while bishop that someone who you believed was a child molester would not be a priest in the diocese of Orange?

A: Of course, of course.

Q: Your Excellency, can you explain why John Lenihan has administered the sacraments and is functioning as priest if this was the case?

A: There was a charge brought against him by a Mary Staggs. That’s while I was bishop here. That was early in 1990-91. In fact, she entered a court case against him, and the allegation was that some 15 years earlier a Fr. John Lenihan, who was a young priest not long ordained, at St. Norbert’s, had sexually molested her and this was pursued.

I gave a deposition. Also there was the request of the plaintiff and her lawyer that he receive therapy, and also there was payment of money. … And he’s now the pastor of St. Edward’s, and I appointed him there about 1995 at the recommendation of the priest personnel committee.

I did not see any reason why he should not go there from his record. That is, he had admitted publicly even as I recall to the people of St. Norbert’s that he had been guilty of this sexual conduct with an adolescent.

When he went down to St. Edward’s he informed them. … Anyway, to answer your question directly, he had served well. There was no indication even approaching this kind of conduct, improper sexual contact. …

Q: Has anybody from the National Conference of Catholic Bishops, the Holy See or any other Roman Catholic institution ever provided your excellency with data on the recidivism rate of child molesters?

A: Yes. I think in the national meeting … but you used the term “child molesters,” and they make a distinction between those of “pedophilia,” like youngsters. Those that are adolescents.

Q: Does it make any difference to you in terms of how you handle priest matters where the priest abused a 3-year-old or sexually abused a 17-year-old?

A: Yes, there is a difference.

Q: What is the difference?

A: From what I have learned the experts say that pedophilia I don’t think is recoverable.

Q: How about a 15-year-old girl?

A: Well, that is also very wrong. But I think there is more a chance for a person that, first of all, being an isolated incident … I can understand the temptation of that more. It can’t even occur to me with a child or a baby. Does one make a distinction that’s 15 or 17? She may be very, very precocious or adult-looking, and there would be temptation there.

(In addition to the Staggs case, Lenihan was later accused of molesting and impregnating another teenage girl in the 1980s and forcing her to have an abortion. Lenihan resigned from the priesthood in 2002 after the church paid out [$1.2] million in a settlement. The Los Angles archdiocese paid $200,000, the Orange diocese $1 million.)

-- Arthur Jones

National Catholic Reporter, March 21, 2003 [corrected 04/11/2003]