Monsignor Craig Harrison, the popular pastor of St. Francis of Assisi Catholic Church for nearly two decades, has been put on paid leave for investigation of sexual misconduct with a minor, according to the Roman Catholic Diocese of Fresno.
In a media release, the diocese said it had received an allegation on April 12 of sexual misconduct by a man who was a minor at the time of the alleged abuse. The diocese said it reported the matter on April 15 to the police in Firebaugh, a small community northwest of Fresno.
The Firebaugh Police Department confirmed it's investigating reports from a victim who said he was inappropriately touched by Harrison when he was 14 to 16 years old.
Harrison, 59, who has served at St. Francis since July 1999, previously was pastor of St. Joseph in Firebaugh, according to the St. Francis of Assisi website. The diocese said he also served at Our Lady of Mercy, St. Patrick's and Sacred Heart in Merced, as well as at St. Francis in Mojave.
The diocese also is conducting an internal investigation.
‘I WILL VIGOROUSLY DEFEND MY HONOR’
Harrison answered the door at his downtown home just before 9 a.m. Thursday, before the Fresno Diocese confirmed he was on leave. Harrison was on his cellphone and looked shaken. He told a reporter he hadn't heard anything about being placed on leave and was trying to find out more information.
Later on Facebook, Harrison vigorously defended his honor and wrote that he looked forward to his name being cleared.
He wrote: "Dear Friends,
"I just learned that I am on temporary administrative leave of my duties at St. Francis Parish, pending an investigation into allegations brought against me," he wrote.
"I do not know the motives of my accusers, any names, or the contents of any allegations against me.
"I will vigorously defend my honor from these allegations and look forward to my good name being cleared. Please keep me in your prayers during this trying time."
More than 420 comments were left on the post within two hours, nearly all supporting and defending Harrison.
"I have complete faith in god that you will be cleared from this and back to cracking jokes at mass in no time," wrote Mike England. "We have your back and are here for you if you need anything."
"God has your back... I'm sure this is just a horrible misunderstanding," wrote Jeannie Fluetsch Bliss.
Monsignor Perry Kavookjian of St. Elizabeth Ann Seton also defended his fellow priest. In a Facebook post, he wrote:
"I have known Msgr. Craig for over 35 years. During his years of priesthood, he has never, to my knowledge, done anything to bring harm to another person. Just the opposite. He has done more than most Catholic clergy to protect, defend and assist young people."
He added, "He has adopted children and has numerous grandchildren. In the various parishes he has served through the years, youth ministries have thrived. To think that he would somehow take advantage of a minor is beyond credibility. He is admired and respected as a Catholic priest and good man throughout our Diocese."
SCRUTINY OF DIOCESE’S RESPONSE
Meanwhile, David Clohessy, the former director of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, called The Californian to express his outrage at officials in the Fresno Diocese for waiting three days before contacting Firebaugh police once it learned of the allegations.
"I'm just appalled," he said. "Three days is an awfully long time for any predator to destroy evidence, fabricate alibis, intimidate victims, threaten whistleblowers ... even flee the country as literally dozens of accused predator priests have done over the years."
Cheryl Sarkisian, executive assistant at the Fresno Diocese, defended the diocese's handling of the allegation.
"We follow mandated reporting law, which is if we become aware that minor abuse happened, we contact police right away," she said.
"We did it as early as we were able to. It was late Friday" when the allegation was received, she said.
"Monday is when we were (at the police station) in the morning."
The diocese plans to officially notify parishioners at churches where Harrison has served during Mass this weekend.
Sarkisian acknowledged that the news about Harrison is difficult for parishioners to process but that the church remains a resource and support.
"We're there to continue to let life go on," she said. "Nothing has changed about bringing Christ to people ... we're still there and doing that."
This is the second recent allegation to rock the local Catholic community.
The Rev. Miguel Flores of east Bakersfield's St. Joseph Catholic Church was placed on administrative leave after senior church officials decided to take another look at 17-year-old sexual misconduct allegations involving him and a then-16-year-old girl. Church officials shared the news with parishioners on March 3.
The Fresno Bee has reported that an additional three priests in the Fresno Diocese are also currently on leave and under investigation. They are the Rev. John Michael Listiri, the Rev. Ricardo Magdaleno and the Rev. Gaspar Bautista. Magdaleno's investigation is not related to a sex offense, according to his attorney.
HARRISON IS ‘DEVASTATED’
Harrison, a Bakersfield native and Bakersfield High School graduate who became a Roman Catholic priest in 1987, is an immensely popular figure in the local Catholic community.
He serves as a chaplain for the Kern County Sheriff’s Office and Bakersfield Police Department. He is a foster care advocate, the father of eight adopted children, and is the 2010 recipient of the Bishops Award for Catholic Charities.
He is being represented by Bakersfield defense attorney Kyle J. Humphrey, who said Thursday afternoon that the pastor is devastated by the allegations.
"It's like those people whose houses are destroyed in floods when the creek overflows," Humphrey said. "The rug was pulled out from under him."
"He can't be there to do the wedding and funerals he was scheduled to do this week. He let (people) down for things beyond his control in a system that I think is because of our climate of fear."
Humphrey, who is a St. Francis parishioner and friend of Harrison, said the Catholic Church was slow to respond to public pressure from the sexual abuse scandals and has now overcorrected in its response, and errs heavily on the side of the accuser. He said due process and the presumption of innocence for the accused is lost in the process.
"The truth is," Humphrey said, "he's worthy of far better treatment than he's received."