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Detectives investigating ex-priest's conduct with girl, then 16

February 6, 2013 |  9:24 am
Father Joseph Pina

Los Angeles County sheriff's detectives have launched an investigation of an ex-priest and L.A. school district employee about a sexual relationship he allegedly had with a 16-year-old in the late 1980s, The Times has learned.

The inquiry into the actions of Joseph Pina, 66, may be the first to result from the recent release by the Los Angeles Archdiocese of documents laying out the church’s handling of clergy accused of sexual misconduct.

Pina started working for the Los Angeles Unified School District in 2002, performing community outreach for its school-construction program. The job brought him into frequent contact with families, but no reports of problems in that role have emerged. The construction program is winding down and Pina was working only occasionally in recent months. L.A. schools Supt. John Deasy said he ordered Pina’s dismissal as a result of the recent revelations about his past.

FULL COVERAGE: Priest abuse scandal

The Los Angeles Police Department also is reviewing church files, looking for new cases or more information about old ones.

Pina’s case falls into the latter category. The Sheriff’s Department had investigated Pina in 2002 for the alleged molestation of another girl that began when she was 14 in the late 1970s and continued for about three years. The detectives were persuaded that the claim was genuine, but prosecutors concluded the case was beyond the statute of limitations.

At the time, however, investigators did not know of the more recent allegations, the department said Tuesday.

“The second girl was unknown to us,” said Sgt. Dan Scott. “The archdiocese never informed us about these incidents.”

Some information about allegations against Pina were included in earlier disclosures by the church. But details about the nature of the alleged molestation only just emerged as a result of a court order against the church.

A 1993 psychological evaluation recounts how Pina, as a parish priest, said he was attracted to an eighth-grade girl when he saw her in a Snow White costume: "I had a crush on Snow White, so I started to open myself up to her," he told the psychologist, according to the evaluation. In a report sent to a top Mahony aide, the psychologist expressed concern that the abuse was never reported to authorities.

“I felt like I fell in love with her,” the priest said in the documents released by the church. He said his first sexual encounter happened as he gave the girl driving lessons in October 1988. “She was like three months shy of her 17th Birthday. … I started to touch her and feel her breasts under her clothes.”

Pina talked of sexual contact that occurred about twice a week until the girl was 19. Sometimes the girl would be naked in the rectory during these encounters, according to the documents. “But I never had intercourse,” the priest insisted. “I never did anything she did not allow me to do.”

In later postings, Pina admitted to repeated “boundary issues” with women throughout his career in the clergy. The 1993 evaluation concluded that Pina “remains a serious risk for acting out.”

Nine years later, L.A. Unified hired him as a community outreach coordinator for its $19.5-billion school-construction effort. The archdiocese noted concerns about Pina in an employment questionnaire it filled out for L.A. Unified. But no evidence has come out that either the archdiocese or L.A. Unified followed up further.

Efforts to contact Pina for comment at his home and through his attorney have not been successful.

The newly uncovered case may test the limits of the state’s ability to prosecute former clergy. The U.S. Supreme Court struck down a state law that gave prosecutors one year to file charges after they learned of alleged sex crimes. The ruling limits charges in abuse cases to those that occurred in the late 1980s onward. The new Pina case is right on that borderline, officials said.

“Given the information in this case we obviously are going to investigate,” said Chief Bill McSweeney, the sheriff’s head of detectives. “Obviously, part of that investigation will be when the incidents occurred and whether they are still within the statute. If the law permits we will move forward.”

Both the 1970s allegations and those in the 1980s occurred during a period when Pina worked at St. Alphonsus parish in East LA.

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Steve Lopez: How can Cardinal Mahony still be a priest 'in good standing'?

-- Richard Winton and Howard Blume

Photo: An undated photo of Joseph Pina from a 1999 Los Angeles Archdiocese publication. Credit: L.A. Archdiocese

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