A critical ruling is likely Wednesday in a defamation case brought by the Rev. Monsignor Craig Harrison against a man who runs a Catholic watchdog group when a judge considers a request to compel the Roman Catholic Diocese of Fresno to release Harrison's employment files, including any records of allegations or investigations into sexual abuse of minors.
The request was made by attorneys for Stephen Brady, president and founder of Illinois-based Roman Catholic Faithful Inc., who is the subject of Harrison's lawsuit. On May 29, Brady held a news conference in Bakersfield in which he detailed allegations of sexual impropriety by Harrison with high school boys while Harrison was a priest in Firebaugh. Harrison subsequently sued Brady on Aug. 6 for making "false, defamatory, libelous and slanderous statements" about him.
"When you sue for defamation you now put the truth of the allegations at issue," said Paul M. Jonna, Brady's attorney. "Any records the diocese has of the allegations of abuse would put the matter to rest once and for all."
Harrison's attorneys have filed to block the release of Harrison's employment files, stating it is an invasion of privacy.
"Defendants are clearly on a fishing expedition and casting a wide net in an effort to retroactively support their defamatory accusations," Harrison's attorney, Craig Edmonston, wrote in a legal filing.
Edmonston did not return phone calls seeking comment.
An attorney for the diocese also filed an opposition to the request for Harrison's personnel records, citing privacy concerns but also noting an ongoing investigation of Harrison by the diocese and law enforcement agencies in Firebaugh and Merced.
"In order to protect the integrity of these investigations, it is imperative that any records that may be covered by the request not be produced and remain confidential," wrote Mart B. Oller IV, attorney for the diocese.
Harrison has been on administrative leave from his job as pastor at St. Francis of Assisi Catholic Church in Bakersfield since April, when accusations surfaced that he had inappropriate sexual contact with a minor years ago. Since then at least two other formal accusations of inappropriate sexual contact by Harrison involving minors have been made to law enforcement and the diocese, some dating back nearly three decades.
Harrison, a popular local figure known for helping troubled youth, has denied ever engaging in sexual impropriety.
Also Wednesday, the judge in the case, J. Eric Bradshaw, will consider whether to force KGET-17 to produce video recording of the press conference Brady held in Bakersfield in May.
Brady's attorneys have subpoenaed the TV news outlet to turn over a video of end-to-end coverage they say the station has of the press conference, stating it would prove Brady didn't defame Harrison.
"He didn't actually accuse Harrison of anything. He reported allegations he believe to be credible," Jonna said of Brady's statements that day.
However, attorneys for KGET in a court filing stated that California's Shield Law protects 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.
Harrison has also filed a defamation suit against Justin Gilligan, a former Bakersfield man who changed his name from Ryan Dixon upon entering a monastery in Oregon.
Gilligan, who was a mentee of Harrison's in recent years, spoke out to news media in May saying he was a victim of Harrison's "inappropriate touching, lies, manipulation and abuse of power." Gilligan further alleged he witnessed Harrison touching and being alone with children and giving them gifts and money.
Harrison filed a lawsuit in September saying Gilligan "negligently and maliciously" made false statements that have caused Harrison emotional and economic harm.
The case hasn't moved forward though because Gilligan has not been located to be served with the legal notice. Harrison's attorney, Kyle J. Humphrey, has appealed to the public for help locating Gilligan and Harrison has twice posted a message on his Facebook page in recent weeks seeking the public's help in determining Gilligan's whereabouts.
Harrison also posted a video on Facebook on Oct. 1 from the Catholic News Agency of Pope Francis speaking to a general audience about the "evils of slander."
"We know that slander kills, always," Pope Francis said according to the news service's translation of the Sept. 25 speech. "This diabolical cancer which arises from the desire to destroy a person's reputation also attacks the rest of the ecclesial body."