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Diocese settles sex-abuse case for $2 million

By Greg Hardesty, The Orange County Register –

SANTA ANA, Calif. — The Roman Catholic Diocese of Orange settled a sex-abuse and cover-up lawsuit Monday night with an accuser of former Monsignor Michael Harris, agreeing to pay an unusually high amount of $2 million to end a case that alleged a single incident of abuse.

The settlement in Orange County Superior Court came at around 9:30 p.m. after hours of negotiations on a day when jury selection was set to begin before Superior Court Judge Ronald L. Bauer.

Harris’ accuser is a decorated combat pilot in the Air Force who lives in Nevada. The 41-year-old married father of two young children, who is not being publicly identified by the Register, accused Harris of abusing him in late 1986 or early 1987 when Harris was principal of Mater Dei High School in Santa Ana and he was a student there.

Harris’ attorney, James Ingram, was not immediately available for comment.

Maria Schinderle, general counsel of the Diocese of Orange, said Tuesday the diocese settled for the church entities only and not for Harris, who technically remains a defendant in the lawsuit. Vince Finaldi, an attorney for accuser John Doe, said the lawsuit will be dropped against Harris because he is insolvent.

“We’re very proud to have represented this client, a true war hero, but, more than that, someone who has been strong throughout this case, especially given his position in the Air Force, which has made it very difficult for him,” Finaldi said.

John Doe is a lieutenant colonel and KC-10 pilot who has flown combat missions over Kosovo, Iraq, Afghanistan and other parts of the Middle East and Europe.

Finaldi said the $2 million will be paid by the Diocese of Orange, which as part of the settlement also agreed to send John Doe a letter of apology.

“That letter is as important to him as any settlement money,” said Finaldi, who worked with well-known clergy sex abuse attorney John Manly on the case.

Schinderle said John Doe requested the apology letter from Bishop Tod D. Brown.

“He (Brown) is always willing to apologize for anyone who has been injured by any priest,” she said. “For any injuries this plaintiff may have suffered in his encounters with Michael Harris, we will be apologizing.”

Manly & Stewart, a law firm in Newport Beach, has represented hundreds of victims of clergy sexual abuse throughout the country. Finaldi said $2 million is “very, very high” for a case of alleged one-time abuse.

Harris is a once-popular and high-profile priest in Orange County who left the clergy when Orange County’s clergy scandal erupted a decade ago. After serving as principal of Mater Dei, Harris was founding principal of Santa Margarita Catholic High School in Rancho Santa Margarita, which opened in 1987.

Although Harris has denied accusations of molestation and never has been charged criminally, he was part of a landmark $5.2 million settlement in 2001 that the Los Angeles and Orange dioceses made with one of his accusers, former Santa Margarita Catholic High School student Ryan DiMaria.

In 2005, nine accusers of Harris settled lawsuits with the Diocese of Orange, and the Archdiocese of Los Angeles listed 12 accusers of Harris in a 2004 report on clergy sexual abuse.

John Doe alleged in his lawsuit that Harris abused him when he was a teenager, after he became something of a hero at Mater Dei. He witnessed a purse-snatching outside a grocery store while a sophomore in 1986, chased down the assailant, subdued him and retrieved the victim’s purse.

The would-be purse-snatching victim, in a letter to Harris, called the teenager “a young man of good character and upbringing,” and urged Harris to recognize the student with a citizenship award, documents show.

Harris called the boy into his principal’s office to congratulate him and give him a rosary blessed by the pope and another small gift and to “(assure) him of how proud we are of him and his fine behavior,” according to court documents.

During their private, one-hour meeting, Harris is alleged to have grabbed the boy’s penis and orally copulated him, according to the lawsuit.

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