Bakersfield residents displayed a huge outpouring of support for the embattled pastor of St. Francis of Assisi Catholic Church at a candlelight vigil held Wednesday evening.
Crowds took up every seat in the church, pouring out of the doors and listening to the ceremony through the outside speakers during the one-hour event.
St. Francis ushers said the church holds roughly 1,100 people, and the building was filled to capacity. However, an overflow room at the back of the property that could hold 400 was roughly quarter-full.
The parishioners attended the vigil in a delicate act of faith for Monsignor Craig Harrison, who has been accused of sexual abuse. While showing support for their pastor, the church also did not dismiss potential victims of sexual abuse by the clergy.
"The last two days have given us quite a bit of time to reflect on who we are as a parish, as a community, as the universal church as well as the responses that we give during these very challenging times," said Francis Moore, a deacon in training, during the vigil.
He said the vigil would "lift up all victims of abuse." Later, he added that the church would pray for all priests, especially Harrison.
The vigil attracted some controversy.
Two Bakersfield residents stood outside the church, protesting the vigil. One of the protesters, Carolyn Stripling, held a sign reading, "believe victims of church abuse."
"It's sending the wrong message to victims of sexual abuse, and it's sending the wrong message to predators," she said. "I just want to be here today so (victims) know we're listening to their voices."
Another sign posted on a residence across the street from the church read, "don't support rapists."
Harrison was placed on paid leave last week following allegations of sexual abuse by two men, who separately told the Roman Catholic Diocese of Fresno that the priest had engaged in “inappropriate behavior” with them decades ago.
The police in Firebaugh and Merced, where the incidents allegedly took place in the 80s and 90s, have said they are investigating the reports.
The Catholic Church is also conducting its own investigation into the alleged incidents as well.
The diocese has said that in 2002, it found that an allegation of abuse against Harrison was unsubstantiated and took no action.
Harrison has proclaimed his innocence, and the vigil served as a platform for Bakersfield residents who have been impacted by the priest to show their support.
“We’re going to be praying that the truth comes out, whatever the truth is,” David Brust, a concerned citizen who helped organize the vigil, said before the event. “We’re going to be praying for the victims and we’re going to be praying for the monsignor.”
He said Harrison had been a personal friend of his, and had not had a chance to properly defend himself because the exact details of the allegations, or an exact date of when they had taken place, had not been revealed.
“His life is permanently been changed,” Brust said of Harrison. “Where can he go the rest of his life where the specter of this is not riding on him, whether he’s found innocent or guilty or they decide there’s not even enough proof?”
The vigil was criticized by the national nonprofit, SNAP, or the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, that has clashed with the Catholic Church in the past over abuse by priests.
On Tuesday, the organization sent a letter to Fresno Catholic Bishop Joseph V. Brennan requesting he cancel the vigil, claiming the event would impede the police investigation and deter others from coming forward.
Joey Piscitelli, the northern California leader for SNAP, said he's seen similar vigils in the past.
When a priest has a large following in the community, often their supporters "bash" the alleged victims, he said.
"We understand that a lot of people want to support him, but the problem is that’ll scare alleged victims from coming forward," he said. "They’ll think they’re outnumbered and that they’ll be bashed."
Piscitelli said when he came forward after a priest abused him, supporters of the priest called him a "liar."
"They’re not involved or know what happened," Piscitelli said. "They’re not a party to the act, so how could they call victims liars?"
However, Kyle Humphrey, Harrison’s lawyer, dismissed the idea that the vigil could discourage anybody from coming forward, and he criticized SNAP’s characterization of the event.
“This prayer vigil, as much as the SNAP, personal injury attorney, anti-Catholic organization, wants it to be about them, its only about support for Monsignor Craig,” he said. “It’s not about their victim advocacy, or their agenda to destroy priests and the Catholic Church. It’s an outpouring of support for people that know (Harrison) and love him.”
He added that he was unhappy with the handling of the allegations by the diocese in Fresno.
The lack of information that has been released by the church prevented Harrison from clearing his name, he said, which he described as “tarnished.”
“What’s that old saying about putting the cart before the horse?” Humphrey said. “This time the cart’s been put way out in front of any horses, and this cart is full of reckless disregard for the truth.”