Two people have accused a Bakersfield priest of sexual abuse, according to the Roman Catholic Diocese of Fresno. The community’s response to the allegations is split between loyalty and fury.
But in the midst of the controversy, experts say alleged victims will continue to be silenced and refrain from coming forward.
“People have this stereotype about what a sex offender is like,” says Thomas Plante, who has researched and worked with accused priests, and victims for more than 30 years. “Many clerics, and just men in general who sexually offend, can be sweet, pleasant, friendly, delightful, and smart. People can’t reconcile how this nice person can do something so horrific to a child.”
Hundreds of Bakersfield Catholic parishioners attended a vigil May 1 held for Monsignor Craig Harrison at St. Francis Church amidst the allegations. People lit candles for him, some spilled into the hallways, and others stood outside.
Denise Eyherabide doesn’t believe any of the allegations are true or plausible. She says she thinks the motive of the alleged victims is money.
“I was shocked,” she says. “I said, ‘No way, can’t be. And why’d they wait so many years to report this excetera?’”
Officials at the diocese say the sexual misconduct allegations occurred while Harrison worked at churches in Merced and Firebaugh. Harrison has been a priest in several Valley churches for decades.
In Merced, one allegation against Harrison dates back to the 1980s, Merced Police Lt. Jay Struble says. No charges have been filed. But, he says, even if the investigation finds credible evidence the statute of limitations prevents a prosecution.
The Firebaugh Police Department also has an ongoing investigation against Harrison, according to a press release. A man is accusing the priest of inappropriately touching him when he was 14 to 16 years old. At the time, Harrison worked at St. Joseph's Church.
Even if the investigations do find credible evidence against Harrison, it wouldn’t matter to some.
“I still won’t believe it,” Eyherabide says. “He’s just not that type. He’s just always helping people, etcetera, and if that were to come out I’d be in total shock, they would probably have to scrape me off the floor.”
Jamie Aguilar was also at the vigil, and says she would mistrust any police investigation that found credible evidence.
“They need to go back and study and get better degrees to figure out this investigation because there’s no way it’s true, absolutely none,” Aguilar says.
Many parishioners attending the vigil, like Eyherabide and Aguilar, say Harrison has helped them personally.
Historically, Plante says people have put priests on pedestals. That’s part of the reason why it’s difficult for people to reconcile they can cause harm.
“While it might not fit the stereotype, it still might be true and it’s hard for people to understand that,” Plante says. “Sex offenders come in all sorts of different shapes, and sizes, and flavors, and colors, and so forth. The stereotype is just that, it’s a stereotype.”
Although there are people who have falsely accused priests of sexual abuse, the vast majority are true, says Plante, who teaches psychology at Santa Clara University and psychiatry at Stanford University.
It’s not unusual for something like a vigil to happen after a well-known priest in the community is accused of sexual abuse, Plante says, because it offers parishioners solidarity.
“Catholics certainly are used to doing rituals and having sort of a ritualized experience. It makes a lot of sense,” he says.
Sometimes allegations against a priest who is so well-known, like Harrison, can cause a rift in the community, Plante says, between the doubters and the believers.
About half a dozen people protested during the vigil, yelling things like “no compassion for the victims.” They had signs that said "believe victims of church abuse" and "don't support rapists."
“This church is sending a horrible message to other victims of sexual assault, (and) other children,” says Carolyn Stribling, one of the protestors at the vigil. “That your voices don’t matter, that we don’t care, we’re going to support our elders and people running the church.”
The Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, or SNAP, sent a letter to the diocese Bishop Joseph V. Brennan urging him to cancel the vigil because of its effect on victims.
“You must tell them their vigil will scare and depress others, including kids who are being molested today by other predators, into staying silent,” the letter says. “That will endanger more children.”
Plante says it’s easier for alleged victims to come forward now than it was in the ‘60s and ‘70s, but that changes when it’s a popular priest like Harrison, especially when so many people are publicly supporting him.
“You’re going to invite a lot of rejection, people are going to be questioning your motives,” Plante says. “Other victims, if there are other victims out there, they are probably going to be more reluctant to come forward if they feel they are taking on someone who is beloved.”
Kyle Humphrey, Harrison’s attorney, says the allegations are false but he argues the vigil is not meant to stop victims from coming forward.
“Your hypersensitivity to being victim centric ignores due process of law, freedom of religion, freedom of expression, and the opportunity to know your accuser," he says. "You can’t throw away what’s great about this country because your concerned a victim might not come forward.”
Several days after the vigil, SNAP protested outside of the Fresno Diocese on N. Fresno Street. Joey Piscitelli, the Northern California SNAP leader, says they were calling out the bishop for allowing the vigil to happen.
“I want them to think about this, suppose your kid was raped by this priest,” Piscitelli says. “Would you like a bunch of people to assemble to say the priest is telling the truth and your daughter’s lying? Why would you do that?”
Piscitelli says he was sexually abused by a priest when he was a minor, and when he came forward, he was called a liar. It’s one reason why people don’t report abuse until much later, he says.
“It’s hard for them to do anything at all, let alone come forward, and there’s a fan base for the priest who’s been accused of abuse,” he says. “So, all in all, it’s a really bad idea.”
SNAP also asked the diocese on Monday to release the names of priests who have been accused of sexual abuse. The diocese says it will, according to a statement. Diocese officials also say the state attorney general’s office requested the same information.
Following the protest, SNAP released its own list of 22 alleged abusers that Piscitelli compiled.
Reporter Christina Lopez in Bakersfield contributed to this report.