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Calif. man alleges fraud in church lawsuit

By Gillian Flaccus
Associated Press / June 24, 2010

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LOS ANGELES — 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 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 lawyers 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.

Newell, 48, now ministers in a working-class neighborhood there and holds a daily evening Mass with drums and electric bass that is broadcast live through the parish website. When approached by a reporter, Newell said the Tijuana archdiocese told him not to comment. But he said 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.

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