Catholic church accused of fraud in Calif., allowing alleged molester priest to work in Mexico

LOS ANGELES (AP) — The 20-year-old college student was working as a youth minister with the Archdiocese of Los Angeles when he revealed a long-buried secret to church authorities: He had been molested by a priest for several years, beginning when the cleric was first a youth minister and then a seminarian.

The young man met with church officials, who promised the priest would never work around children again.

Sixteen years later, the man — now a father of two — typed the Rev. Jeffrey Newell's name into a computer and was stunned by the results: Newell was still a priest, serving in the Diocese of Tijuana. His MySpace page lists a half-dozen teenage boys as his friends and includes pictures of Newell in his priest's collar.

That discovery led to a lawsuit filed Tuesday against the Los Angeles archdiocese alleging that church leaders engaged in fraud and negligence by allowing Newell to continue serving as a priest long after his alleged crimes were reported.

The lawsuit is the second to be filed in California in recent months that uses fraud — and not molestation or sexual battery — as the basis for litigation over alleged sex abuse, and more are expected. Dozens are already working their way through the legal system in several other states, including about 20 fraud cases filed in Minnesota in the past year.

Church attorneys in California have submitted court papers calling the theory fatally flawed, and a Fresno County judge will soon consider if a case there, filed in April, passes legal muster in California.

If it survives, suing for fraud could be another avenue for California clergy sex abuse victims who failed to take advantage of a one-year grace period that allowed them to sue after the deadline for a lawsuit had expired.

The alleged California victim, referred to only as Joseph Doe in the lawsuit, says he was duped into not suing earlier because he believed the archdiocese had removed Newell.

"I thought the archdiocese would handle it. I was 20, 21 years old and here I was going up as high as I thought I could go," said the man, who requested anonymity because he is a sexual assault victim and is concerned about his reputation as an administrator at a private Christian school. The Associated Press does not name alleged victims of sexual abuse.

A 2008 letter from a church attorney to law enforcement indicates Newell was ordained in 1990, a year before the alleged victim reported the abuse, and removed from the Los Angeles archdiocese in 1993 for unrelated reasons. The letter lists possible contact information for him in the Diocese of Tijuana.

On Wednesday, church spokesman Tod Tamberg said Newell was removed for "not complying with a treatment program for personal issues including obesity and alcohol" and engaging in "sexual misconduct with an adult." He did not elaborate.

Newell, 48, now ministers in a working-class neighborhood in Tijuana and holds a daily evening Mass with drums and electric bass that is broadcast live through the parish website. Young parishioners interviewed there said they think highly of "Padre Jeff," who runs a teen community group every week, holds a radio show for Catholic teens and takes groups of children on sleepovers to a church-owned ranch. There is no evidence of abuse allegations in Mexico.

When approached by an Associated Press reporter, Newell said the Tijuana archdiocese told him not to comment. But he did say he had done nothing wrong in Mexico.

"I've lived a chaste life for the past 20 years, 17 years in this community," he said.

Until now, the church has been immune to old sex claims not filed within the one-year window — but that could change if these new lawsuits survive legal challenges, said Anthony DeMarco, a plaintiff's attorney in Los Angeles. The claims could also be a financial pitfall for the Roman Catholic church in California.

The grace period led to about 1,000 lawsuits in California and has cost the church more than $800 million in settlements in recent years, including a record-breaking $660 million payout in Los Angeles and a $100 million deal in Orange County.

"We've routinely found evidence that the church has covered up allegations of abuse and continued to place these priests into positions of trust," DeMarco said. "That to me is a fraud and there's probably quite a few folks out there who could benefit."

The law allows plaintiffs to file suit within three years of discovering they were the victim of fraud or deceit, said Joe George, the Sacramento attorney who filed the Newell lawsuit.

Church attorneys say attempts to circumvent time limits on sex abuse cases by suing for fraud are dishonest and legally defective.

Michael Hennigan, an attorney representing the Los Angeles archdiocese, did not return a call for comment, but papers filed in the Fresno case called the lawsuit a "tortured" attempt to sue a decade too late.

Greg Keating, a tort law professor at the University of Southern California's law school, agreed the cases are a long shot, but said they could go forward if plaintiff attorneys can prove a pattern of deception.

"The Catholic church is trying to rely on the statute of limitations for not being held accountable for some pretty serious wrongs. It's not a get-out-of-jail-free card," he said.


AP stringer Mariana Martinez contributed to this report from Tijuana.