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Correspondence from 2004 sheds fresh light on early allegations against Harrison

Monsignor Craig Harrison

Monsignor Craig Harrison

Newly disclosed letters and emails from the early 2000s detail allegations that Bakersfield priest Craig Harrison had sex with two high school students while serving as pastor of a church in Firebaugh.

In addition, an email from August 2004 alleged he would examine boys' private parts every morning as a way of checking whether they had been using drugs.

The accusations surfaced as part of an unrelated investigation conducted in 2004 by a retired FBI agent in Merced. Summaries of his findings were contained in material provided to The Californian Thursday by Stephen Brady, a representative of Roman Catholic Faithful, an organization of church members including investigators and lawyers, whose self-professed goal is to rid the church of clerical corruption.

It was unclear whether the accusations outlined in the letters were among those that have come to light in the weeks since Harrison, pastor of St. Francis of Assisi Church, was placed on paid leave April 25 over allegations of inappropriate contact with minors.

A spokesperson for the Roman Catholic Diocese of Fresno, Teresa Dominguez, said by email she could not comment on the emails and letters because an investigation is in process.

Harrison's lead attorney in Bakersfield, Kyle J. Humphrey, questioned the authenticity of the correspondence and said the allegations they contain are part of a concerted effort by a cabal set on destroying Harrison.

All that's necessary to set up a claim against the church and destroy a priest, Humphrey said, “is take some information that was created at some point in time and say, 'Oh well, if someone accused him, he must have done everything he was accused of.'”

Harrison, for his part, has denied allegations he has ever had inappropriate contact with minors.

Among the correspondence shared by Roman Catholic Faithful was a July 19, 2004, email by a man who said he was "young and in high school" — it did not state his age at the time of the alleged incidents — when he had two sexual encounters and one "semi-sexual encounter" with Harrison. Two of the incidents took place in the bedroom of one of Harrison's adopted sons and the other was in the back of the priest's Ford Explorer, according to the man's email to a church official.

"Padre C (Harrison) had a way of making everything seem okay," the unidentified accuser wrote.

The email states the accuser cut off the relationship with Harrison after seeing him engage in a sex act with another high school student. When the accuser confessed the events to a different priest, he wrote, he was told to remain quiet and "give it to God."

Thomas H. Walsh, the former agent with the FBI, summarized the accuser's account in a letter sent Sept. 16, 2004, to former Fresno diocese Bishop John T. Steinbock. The letter said Harrison discussed the allegation with Steinbock and that Harrison hired an investigator to clear him of the charge.

Walsh could not be reached for comment Thursday.

On Sept. 29 of that same year, the diocese's then-director of human resources sent Walsh a letter saying Steinbock wished to respond by stating Harrison denied the allegations of sexual misconduct.

"He (Harrison) further states he has never had any inappropriate contact with any person," the letter reads.

The second allegation regarding Harrison inspecting children's private parts was contained in an email Walsh sent less than a month earlier, on Aug. 26, 2004, to Gordon Spencer, then-Merced County's district attorney. (A representative of the district attorney's office noted Thursday that Spencer no longer holds the position and she did not immediately confirm the email's authenticity.)

Walsh's email said a woman in Merced, where Harrison worked between 1987 and 1989, told him she had approached Harrison about her son, who had been raped as a child by a neighbor and was "a very troubled child." She said Harrison advised exercising "tough love" by throwing him out of her house and allowing him to live with Harrison.

When told of this plan, the boy allegedly struck Harrison and called him a "child molester" before fleeing the room, according to the email.

The email said the woman asked her son why he had accused Harrison, to which he responded that a friend of his who lived with Harrison told him "every morning Harrison lined up all the boys who were residing in the house and examined each boy's testicles with a flashlight … telling them that by doing this he could tell if any one of them was using narcotics."

At least four individuals have accused Harrison of inappropriate conduct with minors, with some of the alleged events dating back to the 1990s. Separately, Bakersfield police investigated then dismissed an anonymous report in 2002 that Harrison had inappropriate contact with a group of teen juveniles.

Earlier this week, a former Bakersfield man now living in the Pacific Northwest said he observed Harrison having inappropriate contact with minors, touching them and giving them gifts and money.

John Cox can be reached at 661-395-7404. Follow him on Twitter: @TheThirdGraf.

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