Taking aim at another of his accusers, the Rev. Craig Harrison has filed a slander lawsuit against a former friend who went public in May with sexual misconduct allegations against the popular Catholic priest.
The suit filed Sept. 11 in Kern County Superior Court says Justin Gilligan, a former Bakersfield man who changed his name from Ryan Dixon upon entering a monastery in Oregon, "negligently and maliciously" made false statements that have caused Harrison emotional and economic harm.
As recounted in Harrison's lawsuit, Gilligan said in May he was a victim of Harrison's "inappropriate touching, lies, manipulation and abuse of power." Gilligan further alleged he witnessed Harrison touching and being alone with children and giving them gifts and money.
The lawsuit follows a similar lawsuit filed on Harrison's behalf Aug. 6 against Stephen Brady, president and founder of Illinois-based Roman Catholic Faithful Inc., who has detailed allegations that Harrison had sex with two high school students while serving as pastor of the Firebaugh church and that he would examine boys' private parts daily as a way of checking whether they had been using drugs.
Harrison has been placed on leave from his job as priest at St. Francis of Assisi Catholic Church pending investigations into sexual misconduct allegations against him. He has denied ever acting in a sexually inappropriate manner.
Harrison's suit against Gilligan seeks economic, exemplary and other damages in an amount to be determined in court.
Gilligan declined Tuesday to comment on the lawsuit, adding that he has not yet hired legal representation.
Bakersfield lawyer Craig A. Edmonston, who along with lawyer Kyle J. Humphrey filed the lawsuit on Harrison's behalf, said the decision to sue Gilligan was made "obviously to hold Brother Gilligan accountable for his defamatory statements." It was also done to clear Harrison's name and recover damages, Edmonston added.
Humphrey said last month that Harrison's lawsuit against Brady was the first in a series of legal actions intended to clear the priest's name and hold people accountable for their false accusations against Harrison.
Edmonston declined to say whether Harrison will file additional lawsuits against others who have accused Harrison of sexual misconduct.
"Time will tell," Edmonston said. "We’ll just have to wait and see whether that develops.”
Bakersfield plaintiff's lawyer Daniel Rodriguez, who in the past has represented celebrities filing slander lawsuits, said such cases can backfire. For one thing, they remind the public about the accusations made, he said.
"Now you keep it in the public mind’s eye," he said. "So is that good strategy, to continue doing that?"
Another possible negative legal outcome, Rodriguez added, is that a jury might decide the allegedly false claims central to the case are true.
"You're taking a gamble," he said.
Gilligan, a former Bakersfield political operative who served for a time as executive vice chairman of the Kern County Young Republicans, told Bakersfield police investigators he witnessed Harrison tickling minors on their stomach area, pinching their upper thighs and giving them inappropriately long bear hugs.
Speaking to news reporters in May, Gilligan said Harrison also told sexual jokes around minors, spent time alone with them and gave them gifts and money.
Gilligan has also told police investigators Harrison rubbed Gilligan's chest for about 15 minutes when the two of them shared a bed together during a three-person trip to a wedding in San Francisco.
Harrison first spoke up publicly against Gilligan in May. In a two-page letter accusing the Roman Catholic Diocese of Fresno of failing to defend him, Harrison said Gilligan drank frequently and excessively, "embarrassing himself with his crude language and behavior."
Harrison went on to write that he reproached Gilligan for his actions, provoking Gilligan's anger, and that the two had little contact after that.
The priest's letter also notes Gilligan was obligated as a seminarian to report any misconduct by Harrison, which he did not do. "He did not report because nothing happened," Harrison wrote.