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Group of Lawyers and Activists Aim Spotlight at Sex Abuse in OC
By Lillian Boyd, Dana Point Times
Scandal and allegations of sexual abuse in the Catholic Church have spread across the globe—and Dana Point is no exception.
On Wednesday, Dec. 5, the Minnesota-based law firm of Jeff Anderson & Associates released a report on clergy sexual abuse in the Diocese of Orange, which contained information, photographs and assignment histories on 72 clergy accused of sexual misconduct. A spokesperson for the Diocese of Orange says that list is erroneous and overinflated. Of those 72, eight men were found to be, at least at one point, affiliated with Dana Point or St. Edward the Confessor Catholic Church.
Mike Reck, an attorney with Jeff Anderson & Associates, led a press conference the day the report was released at Doubletree by Hilton in Orange, alongside Patrick Wall, a former Roman Catholic priest and Dana Point resident, and three survivors of abuse.
“We’re doing this because the Diocese of Orange is not,” Reck said. “It’s important because the release of these identities sends a message to survivors of abuse that they are not alone, that this matters and that healing can begin. Because we know only with the acknowledgment that this happened, that this was wrong and that this was not the survivor’s fault can the healing begin.”
The list of 72 names was compiled from public records, documents, letters and archives from churches and witness testimony, according to the firm. But the firm’s associates say the list is incomplete, just as it believes lists released by the church in 2004 and 2016 were incomplete.
“The public and the survivors deserve two things. They deserve a complete list, which is full and honest and transparent. And they deserve a full disclosure of what is known and when it was known. This is what allows the healing to start and allows for accountability,” Reck said.
While an infographic map provided by Jeff Anderson & Associates indicates that there were seven clergy affiliated with Dana Point, Dana Point Times found eight. Wall, who helped assemble the list, says this was because only the seven referenced in the infographic have documentation of their assignments in Dana Point.
Eight Accused Clergy Connected to Dana Point
Monsignors John Coffield and John Doherty were believed to have resided in Dana Point. Coffield was first accused of sexually abusing a boy at Dolores Mission in Los Angeles from 1960-62. The accusation was made in a lawsuit filed against the Archdiocese of Los Angeles in 2003. One plaintiff accused Coffield of sexually abusing him from 1959 to 1960. Following the suit, another man accused Coffield of sexual abuse in the early 1960s. After his retirement, Coffield also was affiliated with San Felipe de Jesus Church in Capistrano Beach from 1990 to 2005. He died in 2005.
Doherty is accused of sexually abusing a minor from approximately 1967 to 1969 and was named in a lawsuit in 2003. In the lawsuit, his name was spelled Dougherty. Doherty is the eighth person with ties to Dana Point, but was not referenced in the infographic because he was not assigned to the area. He lived in Dana Point after he retired.
There were six clergy whose names were on the law firm’s sexual abuse list who had been assigned to St. Edward the Confessor Catholic Church in Dana Point for a period of their service: Father John Lenihan, Father Michael Pecharich, Father Henry Perez, Father Gerald Plesetz, Father Siegfried Widera and Father Denis Lyons.
According to the firm, Father John Lenihan admitted to having sexual contact with a 15-year-old girl on multiple occasions in 1978. According to the report, Lenihan says that church officials knew of his conduct but still assigned him to St. Boniface in Anaheim. He was also accused of impregnating a 16-year-old girl and paying for an abortion in approximately 1982. Lenihan agreed to request laicization (removal from the status of being a member of the clergy) after an investigation of the Diocese of Orange’s priests in 2002. The same year, Lenihan was named in a civil lawsuit alleging child sexual abuse that occurred in the late 1970s. Lenihan was publicly named on the Diocese of Orange’s accounting of clergymen accused of sexually molesting children. He was assigned to St. Edward from 1996 to 2001.
Father Michael Pecharich is accused of inappropriate conduct with four boys, some of whom accused him of sexual misconduct from approximately 1974 to 1984. He has been named in at least one civil lawsuit and is on the list of priests accused of sexual misconduct released by the Diocese of Orange. In 1996, Pecharich admitted to then-Bishop Norman McFarland that he had sexually abused a teenage boy 19 years earlier. Pecharich remained in the ministry until being forced to resign in 2002. It is believed Fr. Pecharich was laicized. He was included in the Archdiocese of Los Angeles’ list of priests accused of sexual misconduct involving minors and was included in a press release issued by the Diocese of Orange in 2004 as a priest accused and removed from ministry. He was assigned to St. Edward from 1977 to 1979.
According to records produced by the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, Father Henry Perez was incardinated into the Diocese of Orange in 1989 and left active ministry in 1991. He was assigned to St. Edward from 1987 to 1989. Records further reflect that Perez was placed on administrative leave without faculties of the Diocese of Orange by the spring of 1991. He was accused of sexual abuse in 2003 by two men. The sexual abuse is alleged to have taken place in Chandler and Glendale, Arizona, in the late 1970s to early 1980s. Perez was indicted on six felony charges of sexual conduct with a minor and one charge of misdemeanor public sexual indecency. Shortly following the indictment, Perez died. Both reports by the Archdiocese of Los Angeles and Diocese of Orange included Perez among the list of priests accused of sexual abuse.
At least two survivors have reportedly come forward alleging sexual abuse by Father Gerald Plesetz between approximately 1973 and 1977. He was assigned to St. Edward from 1973 to 1976 and was laicized in 1978. In 2002, he was arrested on charges of child sexual abuse dating back to the 1970s while he worked at St. Edward. The charges were later dropped. At least one civil suit has been filed against him. Plesetz was included in the Archdiocese of Los Angeles’ list of priests accused of sexual misconduct involving minors. Records produced by the Archdiocese of Los Angeles reflect that in 2002 an adult woman reported to the Archdiocese that when she was a 16-year-old student at Mater Dei High School and a parishioner at St. Edward’s Parish, she became pregnant and subsequently gave birth to a daughter in 1975; she named Plesetz as the father.
Father Siegfried Widera was convicted in 1973 of sexual abuse at St. Mary Parish in Port Washington, Wisconsin and sentenced to three years’ probation. He had admitted to sexually abusing an 11-year-old boy and several other boys. Widera was allowed to continue working and was reassigned to another church in Wisconsin. In June 1976, the Archdiocese of Milwaukee was informed by a therapist that a boy under his treatment disclosed that he had been sexually abused by Widera. Shortly thereafter, he moved to the Diocese of Orange, and he later was accused of sexually abusing multiple boys in Orange County—at St. Pius V in Buena Park, St. Justin Martyr in Anaheim and St. Martin de Porres in Yorba Linda. According to Anderson & Associates, Widera was assigned to St. Edward from 1982 to 1984.
In 1985, after he was accused of sexual abuse in Orange County, Widera was barred from priestly duties and sent to Servants of the Paraclete in Jemez Springs, N.M. for treatment. He never finished the treatment and went on to become a businessman in Tucson, Ariz. It wasn’t until 2002, when the church’s national sex abuse scandal was brought to light, that more victims came forward and Widera was charged with 33 felony counts of sexual abuse in California and nine counts in Wisconsin. After being indicted, Widera fled to Mexico, where a manhunt ensued, and upon having his hotel surrounded by law enforcement, he jumped off a balcony to his death.
Widera was included in a press release issued by the Diocese of Orange in 2004 as a priest accused and removed from ministry. In 2006, three more men came forward alleging Widera had sexually abused them while at St. Andrew’s in Delavan, Wisconsin. A total of at least 10 victims have settled civil suits with either the Archdiocese of Milwaukee or Diocese of Orange. According to the law firm, after Widera’s personal file was released, it was discovered that the Diocese of Orange was aware of his history of sexual abuse but chose to accept him into the Diocese nonetheless.
In 1993, Father Denis Lyons admitted to inappropriate behavior with two adults when he worked as pastor at St. John the Baptist in Costa Mesa. Lyons was placed on administrative leave in 2002, when he was believed to have been residing in Seal Beach. He was arrested in 2003 on charges that he sexually abused a teenage boy in 1979 during counseling sessions at St. John the Baptist and during visits to the boy’s home. The charges were later dropped due to the statute of limitations.
In 2008, a man filed a lawsuit alleging Lyons sexually abused him when he was a third-grader at St. John the Baptist School from approximately 1994 to 1995. In 2009, Fr. Lyons was arrested on new charges of child sexual abuse. On March 23, 2012, Lyons pleaded guilty to the charges and was sentenced to one year in jail, five years’ probation, and had to register as a sex offender. Lyons was included in the Archdiocese of Los Angeles’ list of priests accused of sexual misconduct involving minors. He was also included in the Diocese of Orange’s list of clergy removed from the ministry as a result of credible allegations of sexual abuse. According to the California Megan’s Law website, Lyons is believed to be residing in Los Angeles. He was assigned to St. Edward from 1997 to 2001.
The Church’s Response to Reports of Abuse
Dana Point Times reached out to every priest listed on the St. Edward website staff page, but the newspaper was redirected to the Diocese of Orange for comment.
“The list naming 72 priests is seriously overinflated and erroneous,” said Tracey Kincaid, Director of Communications for the Diocese of Orange.
A list released by the Catholic Church in 2016 of accused clergy who had been removed from the diocese includes three names in Anderson & Associates’ most recent report: John Lenihan, Michael Pecharich and Denis Lyons.
“Priests not on the above (2016) list are either deceased, associated with another diocese or religious order or the accusation against them was unsubstantiated and not credible. In keeping with national practice, they are adjudicated through their order or diocese,” Kincaid said in an email. “Files are being examined and as appropriate the diocese will update the list as warranted.”
A lawsuit was filed by Jeff Anderson & Associates in October in Los Angeles Superior Court against the California Catholic Conference on behalf of Thomas Emens alleging that he was between 10 and 12 years old when Msgr. Thomas Joseph Mohan “engaged in unpermitted sexual contact” with him in Anaheim. Mohan died in 2003. The lawsuit asks for the conference to disband its current policies of handling accusations of sexual abuse or misconduct and to release the names of all clergy who have been investigated in cases of such acts.
In response, Kincaid said Mohan was a Chicago priest, retired in 1973 from the Archdiocese of Chicago and died in 2003 at age 92. After retirement, he moved to live with his sister in Orange County and Mohan was never incardinated in the Diocese of Orange.
The Diocese of Orange assembled an independent oversight review board in 2002 to investigate any and all claims of childhood and adult sexual abuse. According to a spokesperson for the diocese, this board is made up primarily of professional lay people, including a physician, lawyers, a retired judge, former FBI personnel, a psychologist, law enforcement personnel and a school principal. More information on the review board can be accessed at www.SAFERCBO.org.
If you are a victim of sexual abuse in need of confidential support, call 1.800.656.4673(HOPE) or visit www.rainn.org. To report abuse in Orange County, call 949.770.6011 or 714.647.7000. If you witness abuse in the act, immediately call 911.