By Stein, M. L.
Editor & Publisher , Vol. 124, No. 10
Newspaper defends publishing story about priest
An Orange County Register story about a well-known priest's admission of sexual contact with a 15-year-old girl in 1978 was accompanied by two sidebars in which a bishop blasted the piece and editor Chris Anderson defended it.
The lead of the Feb. 4 story reported that the Rev. John Lenihan, 44, pastor of one of Orange County's most prominent and oldest Roman Catholic parishes, had agreed to undergo therapy as one condition of settling a lawsuit by Mrs. Mary Staggs, now 27. The woman alleged she was the victim of his molestation over a four-year period -- beginning when she was 13 -- while a member of his church youth group.
The woman also charged that church officials knew of the abuse and covered it up. She went public with her accusation after seeing a story and picture of Lenihan in connection with a church fund drive in 1989, according to the Register story by Gregg Zoroya.
In an evidence-gathering hearing last October, Lenihan admitted two sexual encounters with the woman when he had been 32, she, 15. The sidebar complaint by the Most Rev. Norman F. McFarland, bishop of the Diocese of Orange quoted him as saying, "The unfortunate incident that the Register is reporting as molestation (and which was not an act of sexual intercourse) took place in 1978, over 12 years ago . . . . Since then, there has not been the slightest wrongdoing or scandal connected to Father Lenihan. He has led an exemplary life of dedicated service to the Church and community . . . ."
Bishop McFarland said he found it impossible for him to accept the Register's "rationale in bringing this matter to public attention now, and after it has been privately settled.
"I can only stand amazed and chagrined when people can be so certain of their own righteousness as to have no hesitancy in casting the first stone," he added.
Under the head "Why we are publishing this story," Anderson wrote that the decision to print it "was not made lightly or quickly. …