Originally posted at 12:30 p.m. June 19, 2014. Edited with new details.
By BILL HETHERMAN
City News Service
A former employee of a Catholic church in Westlake Village is suing the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, alleging she was harassed and forced to quit after she complained that a bishop allegedly implicated in a priest sex abuse coverup would preside over a parish confirmation ceremony.
Denise Cortes, former confirmation director for St. Jude the Apostle Catholic Church, filed the lawsuit June 13 in Los Angeles Superior Court. Cortes, 56, also alleges harassment due to her age, defamation, breach of contract and intentional infliction of emotional distress.
Cortes names as additional defendants St. Jude's Pastor Jim Stehly, Deacon Bill Smith and Barbara Farmer, the parish's business administrator. She seeks unspecified damages.
Archdiocese spokeswoman Monica Valencia issued a prepared statement in reaction to the complaint.
"The lawsuit is a result of a personnel matter that the Archdiocese thought was resolved with the employee," the statement read. "She has responded with litigation and we thus can't comment further."
According to the complaint, Cortes worked as a confirmation director at various archdiocese parishes dating back to 1981. She began her employment at St. Jude the Apostle in 2000, the suit states.
In May 2013, Cortes found out that former Santa Barbara Bishop Tom Curry would be performing an upcoming confirmation ceremony, according to the lawsuit. Four months earlier, Los Angeles Archbishop Jose Gomez announced that Cardinal Roger Mahony would have a reduced role in the church and Curry had stepped down from that job amid recent revelations over their handling of the priest abuse scandal in the 1980s.
Internal Catholic church records released last year documented that 15 years before the clergy sex abuse scandal became known, Mahony and Curry discussed ways to conceal the molestation of children from law enforcement.
"(Cortes) was adamant about not having Bishop Curry be at the ceremony, let alone preside over it, because he played a major role in the Archdiocese of Los Angeles sex abuse scandal and she was concerned about risks associated with his appearance," the suit states.
Cortes also worried that Curry "would continue to obstruct justice by continuing to protect the clergy and the church from accusations of molestation and that, consequently, his role in the confirmation of teenagers and young adults would be inappropriate, unethical and further such conduct," the suit states.
Cortes expressed her concerns about Curry to Stehly, but he told her he was a friend of the bishop and that she should instead talk to Smith, the suit state.
Cortes' attorney, Carney Shegerian, said today that Smith did nothing and that Curry presided over the confirmation ceremony as planned.
According to the lawsuit, last November Farmer told Cortes that she must report to her instead of Stehly. Farmer told her she would no longer receive vacation pay when she went on retreats, the suit states.
Farmer also kept Cortes out of social gatherings, leaving Cortes to feel "unwelcome at the place she had been working at for 14 years," the suit states.
Cortes asked for Stehly to intervene in her dispute with Farmer, but he did nothing to help her, the suit states.
In January, Farmer "informed and confided in plaintiff that she had purposefully misrepresented information regarding the misreported critical information in the parish's annual report," according to the lawsuit.
After Cortes reported what she knew to Smith and Stehly, Farmer began to ignore and shun her, the suit states.
That same month, Stehly and Smith changed Cortes' employment from full- to part-time, cut her salary from $48,000 to $26,000 and denied her benefits while knowing that her child needed medical help for diabetes, according to the lawsuit.
Cortes resigned Feb. 20 and was replaced by a 35-year-old friend of Stehly, the suit states. The next month, Stehly filed a police report alleging Cortes "removed church files." the suit states.
The pastor also told parishioners that his car was broken into, his email account was hacked and that church files were missing, according to the lawsuit.
Cortes received calls from people who said Stehly was implying that she was responsible for these actions, the suit states.
In addition, the locks on the church doors were changed for the first time since Cortes began working there, according to the lawsuit.