A Catholic priest removed from leading the Old Mission San Juan following allegations of sexual abuse is preparing to leave the priesthood for good. But he may walk away with enough money to live on for the rest of his life.
Lawyers for Father Edward Fitz-Henry and the Diocese of Monterey are hashing out the terms of a settlement over a lawsuit Fitz-Henry filed, according to Tom Riordan, vicar for temporalities and administration at the diocese, and Fitz-Henry’s attorney, Daniel De Vries.
The priest claims the diocese failed to protect him against a 2011 sexual-abuse lawsuit. In February 2011, a young man identified in court papers only as John RJ Doe alleged Fitz-Henry sexually abused him as a teen at Madonna del Sasso parish in Salinas. Fitz-Henry never admitted wrongdoing, and the diocese maintains that John Doe’s allegations were unfounded.
Still, the diocese settled a case for $500,000 in exchange for John Doe dropping his lawsuit.
But an internal church-review board found a credible allegation of sexual misconduct had been made against Fitz-Henry 20 years earlier. It was on those grounds that the diocese put the priest on leave, but continues to pay his room and board.
Fitz-Henry sued the diocese in January 2012, arguing it had thrown him under the bus in its handling of the allegations. An investigation by the Salinas Police Department never led to charges.
“Father Ed never had the opportunity to get in front of a jury of his peers and say, ‘I am innocent. This stuff never happened. This is all hogwash,’” De Vries says.
In court papers, De Vries describes false accusations of sexual misconduct as an “occupational hazard” for Catholic priests. Fitz-Henry maintains his innocence, and De Vries says he is preparing to be laicized, which means giving up his priestly ordination.
“He is willing to transition into a different career, but it’s not going to be without heartache, and it’s not going to be without the means to make that transition,” De Vries says.
The 54-year-old priest was raised in Dublin and has been in ministry for nearly 40 years, De Vries says.
Neither party would disclose what sum they’re discussing. But Patrick Wall, a former Benedictine monk, canon lawyer and consultant who worked with John Doe’s attorneys, suspects it’s enough to live on indefinitely. That would be required as “proper upkeep” under canon law, Wall says, if Fitz-Henry remained ordained. But Fitz-Henry’s canon lawyer, Robert Flummerfelt, says settlements like these usually only pay for a few years.
In his complaint, Fitz-Henry argues the diocese failed to defend him and violated privacy rules by communicating with the media and disclosing that he’d spent time at Servants of the Paraclete in the early 1990s. The New Mexico parish is a counseling center for troubled priests.
That’s where Wall thinks Fitz-Henry should return. “I think the whole laicization process is a public-relations move by the church,” he says. “Instead of taking care of a guy they created, they’re trying to get out of their liability.”
It was the diocese’s own investigator, in reviewing the 2011 allegation, who discovered the decades-old “boundary issue,” as Riordan describes that finding of sexual misconduct.
Fitz-Henry denies that earlier allegation as well, says De Vries: “This story should be him coming out with his head held high.”