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Fresno diocese prevails in defamation suit brought by Craig Harrison

20210219-bc-harrison (copy)

Monsignor Craig Harrison addressed the media at a news conference at the law offices of Kyle J. Humphrey near downtown Bakersfield in February.

The Roman Catholic Diocese of Fresno prevailed in dismissing a lawsuit brought by former employee and priest Craig Harrison, who claimed he had been slandered in the media by his employer. 

A Fresno County Superior Court judge ruled Friday in favor of a motion filed by the diocese, which sought to dismiss the lawsuit on grounds that the alleged defamatory speech was protected by the First Amendment.

Judge Kristi Culver Kapetan found the statements at issue in the case, which were made by a victim coordinator for the diocese, were opinion and not factual statements. 

A ruling in favor of the motion, known as an anti-SLAPP motion, results in immediate dismissal of the case. 

Harrison's attorney, Craig Edmonston, said Friday he believes the ruling was made in error and plans to appeal it. The diocese declined to comment, citing a policy regarding pending litigation matters.

The lawsuit is one of three Harrison, who most recently served as pastor of St. Francis Church in Bakersfield, filed after allegations against him surfaced in early 2019 of past sexual impropriety with minors. Harrison was placed on administrative leave from the diocese in April 2019, after which the diocese received additional allegations dating back three decades. Harrison resigned in February.

Harrison sued the Fresno diocese over a May 2019 news report on the website KQED.org, in which diocesan employee Teresa Dominguez said she visited the house of an alleged victim. According to the lawsuit, while at the home, Dominguez said she personally expressed concern for the alleged victim and told him that she believed him, apologized for the pain the alleged incident caused and pledged to support and advocate for him.

Edmonston said Dominguez's statements were tantamount to Harrison's employer publicly declaring that it believed the allegations against him.

The law requires Dominguez's statements to be analyzed using a "totality of circumstances test," which looks at the context in which the statements were made as well as how an ordinary person might perceive them. 

In the ruling, the judge noted that Dominguez made the statements while meeting with and expressing concern for the well-being of the alleged victim, who was described by Dominguez as being in crisis. It is not clear that details of the accusations were even discussed at that meeting, the judge wrote. And even if Dominguez was referring to the accusations against Harrison when she said she believed the alleged victim, she was giving her own impression of the situation, which is not a statement of fact.

"There are no actual factual assertions stated by Dominguez as to anyone, including plaintiff," the ruling said.

Edmonston disagreed.

"We think if you polled 100 people out at Target and Walmart and read them those statements, 99 if not 100 would agree (Dominguez) endorsed the charges and accused (Harrison) of child abuse and molestation. If you’re a neutral person, you don't apologize for someone," he said Friday, adding that he's confident the trial court's ruling will be reversed on appeal.

Harrison had filed two other defamation lawsuits — one against Steven Brady, a Catholic activist, and another against Ryan Dixon, who worked alongside Harrison at St. Francis Church in Bakersfield. In both of those cases, the judge denied a similar motion by the defendants to dismiss the case. Those decisions are currently being appealed.