Two men, both alleging sexual abuse by Monsignor Craig Harrison when they were teenagers, are speaking out about their experiences, saying they want to ensure it never happens again.
Both agreed to tell their accounts of what happened to The Californian on condition of anonymity.
A 43-year-old Bakersfield native and Iraq war veteran now living in Texas says he was sexually abused by Monsignor Craig Harrison over four years while an altar boy at St. Francis Church in Bakersfield in the late 1980s and early 1990s.
He reported his accusations to the attorney general’s office on Tuesday and the Bakersfield Police Department on Wednesday, according to his attorney, Joseph George of Sacramento.
Bakersfield Police spokesman Nathan McCauley said he could not confirm the department received a report, and that the department would only release information in active criminal investigations when necessary to further the investigation, when an arrest is made, or in the interest of public safety.
Another man, in his mid-forties and living in the Central Valley, said he was inappropriately touched by Harrison 31 years ago at a church in Merced. He reported the incident to the police in Merced and then to the Roman Catholic Diocese of Fresno on April 25, the day it was reported that Harrison was placed on leave by the diocese for alleged sexual misconduct with a minor. George is representing both men pro bono.
Harrison, the popular local priest who was placed on paid administrative leave by the diocese last month, has denied the accusations made by various accusers in recent weeks.
Kyle Humphrey, Harrison’s attorney, called the accusations false and “an attempt by dishonest actors to gain money from the Church.” He said an attorney representing the two accusers’ who spoke to The Californian has made millions of dollars by suing the Catholic Church.
"Just as we suspected, as soon as details began to emerge, they would confirm the lack of credibility of these claims," he said. "Based on this new information, we are now more confident than ever that we will be able to prove Monsignor Craig’s innocence beyond a shadow of a doubt."
Alleged abuse at St. Francis Church in Bakersfield
The Texas man said he grew up poor in Bakersfield to a single mother of three children. The family attended St. Francis Church and he attended St. Francis School. He met Harrison at age 13, in 1989, when he was an altar boy at St. Francis Church and Harrison began working at the church as a priest.
The diocese confirmed that Harrison was a priest at St. Francis from June 1989 to October 1991.
He said Harrison took an interest in him and would help his mother by giving her money and groceries. Harrison became like a father figure to him, he said.
“I saw him everywhere. I served two or three Masses a day on busy days. He was the father figure in my life,” he said. "This was a guy that I loved, a person in my heart that I respected."
The man said he would stay overnight at the rectory, an apartment for priests on the church grounds where Harrison lived, whenever he wanted. He said Harrison would tell him things like: “You’re one of the special ones." "You’re special in the eyes of God." "You’re so special in my heart."
The man said Harrison gave him money and alcohol, usually in the form of wine, and that Harrison would take him to Italian restaurants around town, and gifted him a car, twice.
“We’d go places. Everything was available to me,” the man said.
The abuse he described took place primarily in the apartment of the church rectory where Harrison lived.
It began with wrestling and roughhousing, during which the man, a teen at the time, said Harrison would pin him again the wall. That escalated to him getting pinned against a wall and Harrison dry humping him from behind. Some instances, the man said, involved hugging and groin to groin rubbing through clothes.
The man said Harrison was mean to him on occasion, specifically making remarks about his Mexican heritage. (The man's father was Mexican.) Harrison also said disparaging things about the man's mother and encouraged the teen to separate himself from her, the man said.
"He was a master at breaking people down," he said. "He could really hurt people with his words."
He said Harrison gave him a car twice — once when he was a teenager during the time the abuse happened and later on when he was in his early 20s and still had contact with Harrison. He said Harrison had also wanted to adopt him and offered to pay for his college.
As the man got older, he said, he realized what Harrison did to him was wrong.
“I was anguished from it,” he said. “It messed me up.”
“I questioned my masculinity and who I was," he said. "I responded to that by not turning down any fights.”
Shame, guilt and hoping to die
Struggling to come to terms with what happened to him, the man joined the Army in 1999. He became a medic and served five combat tours in Iraq.
“I carried a lot of shame and guilt,” he said. “I went into the military and had five combat deployments. I was hoping I was going to get killed in one of them. I was just tired of feeling that way. I’m still tired of it.”
The man provided The Californian copies of his discharge papers that confirmed his service, and honorable discharge. He went on temporary retirement in 2013 while going through rehabilitation for major injuries suffered in combat, he said, and officially retired in 2015, according to a copy of his Army Certificate of Retirement he provided The Californian. His discharge papers listed 23 ribbons, medals and commendations.
The man said he felt like he could never tell his mother what happened because she loved Harrison so much.
The man said he saw Harrison the last time at his mother’s bedside as she was dying in the hospital over 10 years ago. Harrison gave his mother last rites, a Catholic ritual where a priest says prayers shortly before a person dies. Harrison also officiated her funeral. The encounters with Harrison were difficult for him, he said, and he went back to his life outside Bakersfield.
Upon first seeing a story about accusations against Harrison two weeks ago, he said he felt ambivalent at first, but then thought to himself, "Maybe I can contribute to this."
“I want to see him in a position where he can't do stuff like this to other kids,” he said.
Allegations of inappropriate conduct in Merced
Another man, now in his mid-forties, told The Californian of his encounter with Harrison in a Merced church in 1988 when he was 16. The man said his parents had become concerned about a friend he was hanging around with and suspected he was dabbling in drugs.
His family was Catholic but did not attend the churches in Merced where Harrison served. His parents had heard Harrison had a reputation of being a good counselor to troubled kids, the man said, and they drove him to see Harrison at St. Patrick’s Church in the fall of that year.
The diocese provided dates of service for Harrison that show he served at St. Patrick's and two other churches in Merced from September 1987 until June 1989.
When they arrived at the church, the man recalled Harrison wanted him to take a urine test.
“(Harrison) said if I wanted to prove I wasn’t on drugs, then take the urine test. I had nothing to hide so I said sure,” he said. “And at 16, I didn’t know about drugs. Marijuana was like heroin to me.”
The man remembers leaving his parents and going with Harrison a few rooms away where he entered a bathroom and urinated in a cup Harrison had given him.
The inappropriate touching by Harrison happened in the bathroom afterward but the man declined to go into specifics, stating that he was still uncomfortable talking about the incident.
“I know what happened 100 percent in that bathroom and it wasn’t right at all,” the man said.
“It’s lewd and lascivious behavior,” said George, his attorney, who has represented dozens of church sex abuse victims around the state and has spoken with the man about specifics of the incident.
The man said neither he nor his parents ever received any drug test results.
“I knew it was weird at the time it was happening but I thought, he’s a priest,” the man said. “As time went on I talked to other people and it’s like, what the hell?
“I wonder if he ever gave anyone else urine tests?” he said. “Now that I’m older I’ve never heard of anyone getting a urine test by a priest.”
'It's like I'm vindicated'
The memory of the incident came rushing back to the man two weeks ago when he was waiting in line at a store and saw Harrison’s face on a TV screen.
“I looked over and saw his face and I knew exactly why he was on there,” he said. “I said to myself, somebody said something. Somebody actually stood up and finally said something.”
He immediately went home, went online to read about the accusations and then contacted the police right way. He remembers feeling overwhelmed with emotion, feeling a knot in his stomach and his heart pounding.
“I had no idea I was going to feel this way,” he said. “It’s like I'm vindicated.”
The man said he's reluctant to speak out against Harrison given the priest’s popularity in Bakersfield.
“It’s like they worship him. He’s baptized kids and married people. Of course they’re not going to believe me. They’ve seen him do all that,” he said.
But he also felt supported by comments online and specifically a woman who stood outside a recent prayer vigil in support of Harrison at St. Francis Church holding a sign that read, “Believe victims of church abuse.”
“I wanted to give her a hug,” he said. “She was standing up to people and I was like, 'Oh my god, thank you so much.'”
The man said he has nothing to gain from coming forward other than making sure what happened to him and other alleged victims doesn't happen again. The statute of limitations for either criminal or civil legal action has expired in his case.
“I just want to show people … this is what happened to me and it was wrong,” he said. “I used to be an altar boy. I used to be side by side with these people.”
Reporter Joseph Luiz contributed to this report.