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Harrison faces church proceedings over defamation lawsuit

The Catholic church has brought formal charges against Monsignor Craig Harrison, even before completing an investigation into allegations of sexual impropriety with minors, after he refused to drop a defamation lawsuit against the Roman Catholic Diocese of Fresno and two of its officials.

Harrison had been warned in a letter Bishop Joseph Brennan sent Nov. 18 that if he did not drop the suit then canon law proceedings against him would commence within two weeks. The diocese declined to comment but Harrison's legal team confirmed Wednesday the proceedings are underway and that he now faces penalties potentially including excommunication.

Harrison's refusal to drop the lawsuit, one of three defamation suits he has pending in Kern County Superior court, may suggest he is more anxious to clear his name than he is hopeful that a church investigation opened earlier this year will ultimately allow him to return to work as a priest.

Harrison has repeatedly denied accusations he ever acted in a sexually inappropriate way. His lawyers say Harrison's accusers are trying to extract payment from the church.

At a late morning news conference downtown, half a dozen of Harrison's attorneys, none of them professing experience in canon law, said they did not expect the church would give him a fair trial under the circumstances.

They defended him against Bishop Joseph Brennan's allegations, contained in an Oct. 9 letter to Harrison, that the monsignor had broken a command to quit acting or dressing like a priest and avoid contacting potential witnesses in an ongoing church investigation into allegations of sexual impropriety.

Harrison has posted religious messages on social media, delivered a eulogy at a memorial service and may have worn dark clothing in public, they said. But they said he has not celebrated Mass or otherwise violated the April 2019 order, or precept, that accompanied his removal as pastor of St. Francis of Assisi Church on H Street.

"He has followed their precepts but he has not turned his back" on people who need him, said one of the attorneys, Kyle J. Humphrey. He accused the diocese of bullying and retaliating against Harrison in an effort to get him to back down in court.

Harrison would like to return to being a priest, "but I think we're past that," Humphrey said, adding he hopes he's wrong.

After the diocese received a report Harrison engaged in sexual misconduct three decades ago, and placed him on leave, it received additional allegations from other alleged victims.

Law enforcement agencies looking into the allegations against Harrison have come to different conclusions. Police in Bakersfield and Merced found insufficient evidence to support the accusations, while the Fresno County District Attorney's Office concluded the allegations were credible but that the applicable statute of limitations had expired and so there would be no point of filing charges.

Besides suing the diocese, Bishop Joseph Brennan and Chancellor Teresa Dominguez, Harrison has filed suit against a former friend who said he saw Harrison behaving inappropriately with minors. Harrison has also sued the leader of an Illinois-based group that detailed allegations 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's lawyers said Wednesday their client has been mistreated by a diocese scornful of his rights to due process in civil court.

They provided copies of correspondence between the diocese and Harrison, including an Oct. 9 letter in which Brennan called on the monsignor to drop his lawsuit against the diocese, the bishop and Dominguez.

"I am further advising you that your failure to do so within the next two weeks will result in your being subject to the process of canon law to impose a penalty on you," Brennan wrote. "This is a very serious matter and will be dealt with accordingly."

Bakersfield attorney H.A. Sala said Brennan's call to drop the suit "is an affront to fundamental fairness." He characterized the request as retaliation contrary to the U.S. judicial system.

"That's not what this country is about," he said.

Bakersfield attorney Craig Edmonston defended Harrison's decision to sue the diocese in February, saying statements made by its officials on nationally broadcast radio were unforgivable.

According to the lawsuit, Dominguez told KQED-FM she visited the house of one of Harrison’s alleged victims to apologize and ended up expressing her concern for the person and saying she believed his allegations.

Humphrey said Brennan might taint the church's judicial proceedings by "hand-picking" participants sympathetic to the bishop.

Spokeswoman Cheryl Sarkissian said Wednesday the diocese had nothing to say about the case.

"It's just an internal matter and it's confidential and there's no comment," she said.

Follow John Cox on Twitter: @TheThirdGraf