A50-year-old woman now living in Northern California claims that she was forced repeatedly to strip naked in front of the prying eyes of a Franciscan brother when she was a six-year-old girl growing up in Santa Barbara in 1964. The lawsuit, filed by Maria Cunningham against the Franciscan Friars of California, claims that an unnamed Franciscan had her undress in front of him and at least one other friar in what became a “pedophile peep show,” that he frequently fondled her to the point where her genitals became raw, and that she was forced on at least 10 occasions to masturbate this man. The lawsuit describes Cunningham, then the child of a single mother struggling to raise three kids, as perfect pedophile prey. She alleged that her alleged victimizer-whom she said she met while at the Girls Club-groomed her by praising her, buying her candy, and taking her to the beach and to the zoo.
Aside from the graphic nature of the allegations, what makes this lawsuit unusual is that Cunningham remains uncertain about the identity of her assailant. Her attorney, Tim Hale, suggested it could have been either Brother Sam Cabot or Father Edward Henriques.What makes it unique, however, is the legal argument Hale is using to bypass the state’s statute of limitations which would effectively bar Cunningham from suing for 44-year-old sexual assaults. Hale contended the Franciscans constitute an ongoing public nuisance as a result of their practice of shuttling pedophile priests among communities without warning members of the public that a sexual predator might be in their midst. The statute of limitations does not apply in cases of ongoing public nuisance, Hale explained.
In his complaint, Hale cited several instances in which the crimes of priestly pedophiles “were concealed,” and the priests themselves moved to new and unsuspecting communities. He cited Louis Ladenburger, the former Franciscan whose pedophilic propensities got him in hot water in the 1980s but who was arrested on child abuse charges last year in Idaho, where he worked as a teacher. Had the Franciscans reported Ladenburger 26 years ago, Hale argued, he would have been a registered sex offender and, thus, less likely to land a teaching job. “How many other Ladenburgers are out there?” Hale asked. “How many more ticking Franciscan time bombs will we discover?”
Hale also charged that when Cunningham approached the Franciscans in 2005, higher-ups within the order said they were unable to find any possible perpetrator with either name. Hale charged this response is typical of the cover-up he’s come to expect from the Franciscans and that the priestly order had to know about Cabot, because Hale himself has represented two women who claimed Cabot had molested them in a manner similar to Cunningham’s experience.
The Franciscans do not dispute whether the abuse occurred, but they do say Cabot was not the perpetrator. They also repudiate Hale’s contention that they constitute a public nuisance. “There has not been a single report of abuse by a Franciscan taking place since 1993,” said attorney Brian Brosnahan. “Franciscan perpetrators have been well monitored and controlled. The idea that there is some grave danger to the public by people who are Franciscans is completely unfounded.” As for Ladenburger, Brosnahan said he left the Franciscan order in 1996 because he refused to abide by restrictions the order sought to impose on his behavior.
Finally, Brosnahan described as “ridiculous” Hale’s contention that Franciscan authorities lied to Cunningham about there being any clerics named Brother Sam or Father Ed. “She wasn’t told that we didn’t know of anyone by that name,” Brosnahan said. “She was told there was no one stationed in Santa Barbara at that time by those names.” Brosnahan said Cabot was stationed in San Diego during the time Cunningham reported having been abused and was allowed only one trip to Santa Barbara, meaning that Cabot could not have done it. Additionally, he said Cunningham’s physical description of Cabot-who has denied ever meeting Cunningham-is at odds with what the man looked like at the time.
As for Henriques-who left the priesthood in the 1960s and has since died-Brosnahan said the Franciscans have been forthcoming in their discussions with Cunningham and have no intention of defending him.