Judge J. Eric Bradshaw did not issue a decision Wednesday morning on whether the Rev. Monsignor Craig Harrison’s employer, the Roman Catholic Diocese of Fresno, must release the priest’s personnel records as part of a defamation case Harrison has brought against a Catholic church activist.
Bradshaw said at the end of the hearing that he will issue a written ruling but provided no information on when.
Wednesday’s hearing centered on a request filed by Paul M. Jonna, the attorney for activist Stephen Brady, who believes the priest’s personnel records would contain information on whether Brady’s comments, made during a May press conference in Bakersfield, were true or defamatory.
Brady, president and founder of Illinois-based Roman Catholic Faithful Inc., held a news conference in Bakersfield in May during which he detailed allegations of sexual impropriety by Harrison with high school boys while Harrison was a priest in Firebaugh. Harrison had been put on administrative leave by the diocese from his role as pastor of St. Francis of Assisi Church in Bakersfield a month earlier after the diocese received accusations that Harrison had sexually abused minors years before.
Harrison subsequently sued Brady for making “false, defamatory, libelous and slanderous statements” about him.
During the hearing Wednesday, attorneys for Harrison and the diocese separately argued the request for records was overly broad and an invasion of Harrison’s privacy.
Harrison’s attorney, Craig A. Edmonston, had filed a motion to quash the request for records and told the judge that Jonna was “casting a wide net” in order to find anything that would substantiate the lies Brady told during the press conference. Edmonston said the request went so far as to ask for Harrison’s salary information, any evidence of Harrison acquiring excessive wealth, and Harrison’s involvement in a youth home, which had nothing to do with the allegations of sexual abuse.
Edmonston further urged the judge to consider the request through the prism of Brady’s motives, which includes “destroying lives,” referring to a quote from Brady that was printed in a 2003 Illinois Times news article.
Meanwhile, Mart B. Oller IV, an attorney for the diocese, which is not a party in the lawsuit, said Harrison’s personnel files are protected by First Amendment rights of privacy. He further noted that investigations are ongoing by the diocese, and releasing the documents could compromise the investigations and potentially reveal the names of third party witnesses.
Jonna responded stating that he is not out to publish the documents or reveal names. He said the records could be redacted but that his client can’t be deprived of access to evidence to defend himself.
Jonna also said he found it “bizarre” for Harrison to file a civil defamation case when he is under investigation by his employer and two law enforcement agencies and perhaps he ”should dismiss this case and file it later” if he doesn’t want his employment records reviewed right now.
“That’s a very strong point,” said local plaintiff’s attorney Daniel Rodriguez, who in the past has represented celebrities filing slander lawsuits. “If you’re going to say, ‘Hey, you can’t get to my personal records,’ then fairness would require you to not file the lawsuit until the investigation is over.”
Rodriguez said the plaintiff waives some right to privacy in bringing the suit; however, it’s not an unlimited waiver of privacy — there has to be some limit. He feels a judge will be inclined to rule for allowing some access to Harrison’s records.
“Whenever someone is sued for defamation one of the defenses is you have to prove what I said is false. And I’m going to show that what I said was not false. So I need documents, evidence, facts to show that,” Rodriguez said.
Rodriguez felt Brady was less likely to prevail in his attempt to get KGET-17 to turn over video footage of his press conference in May, which was also considered during the hearing.
Meghan C. Killian, an attorney for KGET, argued during the hearing that California’s Shield Law provides absolute protection for news organizations from having to produce any unpublished material in a civil case. And Michael Trihey, the station’s news director, submitted a sworn statement stating the video never aired.
“That’s a much more black and white issue,” Rodriguez said. “The Shield Law is pretty powerful. I think a judge would be hard-pressed to order a media outlet to turn over things, especially something that wasn’t aired.”