A Valley priest who has been the target of several sexual abuse allegations is suing the founder of a Catholic organization for defamation.
According to the civil lawsuit, filed through Kern County Superior Court earlier this month, Stephen Brady, founder of Roman Catholic Faithful, made statements about Msgr. Craig Harrison that were “false, defamatory, libelous and slanderous.”
Harrison was accused of sexual abuse in April by two people. The abuses allegedly occurred while Harrison worked at churches in Merced and Firebaugh. According to the lawsuit, on May 29, Brady held a press conference at a Holiday Inn & Suites in Bakersfield to revisit allegations of sexual abuse that were made in the early 2000s.
Brady, whose organization focuses on ending corruption within churches and dioceses, handed out papers that said Harrison had sex with two high school students while he was a pastor in Firebaugh, the lawsuit says. The papers also said Harrison had sex with a minor in the back of his Ford Explorer, and that he would examine boys' private parts every morning to check whether they were using drugs, the lawsuit, filed on Aug. 6, says.
According to the lawsuit, Brady accused Harrison of being “a sexual predator" and "corrupt" as well as having a "bad gambling problem." The lawsuit says Brady "suggested that one troubled youth committed suicide because of alleged abuse by” Harrison.
Harrison has denied all sexual abuse allegations against him. The lawsuit says the comments Brady made have permanently damaged Harrison's “good name” and reputation and caused him emotional distress, worry, anxiety, fear, and humiliation. The damages Harrison is seeking are unspecified.
Attorney Paul Jonna, who represents Brady and Roman Catholic Faithful, also named on the lawsuit, said the lawsuit is “frivolous” and is designed to have a chilling effect on free speech.
“My clients have a proven track record of rooting out corrupt clergy in the Catholic church, including bishops,” he said. “I think it's (the lawsuit) certainly being used strategically by Msgr. Harrison.”
Jonna, who’s a partner at LiMandri & Jonna LLP, said it’s unfortunate the lawsuit was filed and “I think it’s being done for an improper purpose. I think he probably is intending for it to influence these investigations.”
Sexual abuse and misconduct claims against Harrison have been investigated by the Firebaugh, Merced, and Bakersfield police departments as well as the Roman Catholic Diocese of Fresno. The Bakersfield Police Department wrapped up its investigation in July and said the accusations were unsubstantiated.
As of May, the Merced and Firebaugh police departments were also looking into sexual abuse allegations against Harrison. Neither department responded to a request for comment and neither has announced whether the claims were credible or if the investigations are still ongoing.
In Jonna’s experience, he said it’s “highly unusual” for a priest to file a lawsuit for defamation while investigations are ongoing.
The Fresno Diocese did not respond to a request for comment and hasn’t said if its investigation into Harrison has ended. Harrison is still on paid leave from St. Francis Church in Bakersfield.
Kyle Humphrey, Harrison's attorney, said in a press release that this is the first in a series of legal actions to restore the reputation of his client.
Harrison received overwhelming support from the Bakersfield community after the most recent sexual abuse accusations were made against him in April. A vigil was held for him in May at St. Francis and hundreds attended.
According to a report released by the law firm Jeff Anderson and Associates, since 1988 Harrison has worked at various churches throughout the San Joaquin Valley: Our Lady of Mercy in Merced; Sacred Heart in Merced; St. Patrick in Merced; St. Francis in Bakersfield; St. Joseph’s in Firebaugh; St. Mary’s in Buttonwillow; St. Mary’s in Taft; and Our Lady of the Snows in Frazier Park.
The Anderson Report on Sexual Abuse in the Diocese of Fresno found one person accused Harrison of sexual abuse in 1998 and 2002 but the diocese found those claims unsubstantiated.
A response to the complaint is due in September, Jonna said, and a case management conference is set before the judge in November.