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Lawsuits accuse Harrison, local Catholic institutions

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Monsignor Craig Harrison during a June 2019 interview.

Two unnamed plaintiffs have filed lawsuits alleging Monsignor Craig Harrison sexually assaulted them as minors while his former supervisors at the Roman Catholic Diocese of Fresno, St. Francis of Assisi Catholic Church in Bakersfield and St. Joseph Church in Firebaugh looked the other way.

The suits were filed Tuesday in Alameda County Superior Court under the terms of a 2019 law, the California Child Victims Act, giving survivors of childhood sexual assault until the end of 2022 to pursue civil claims against those responsible, essentially opening a window that is typically closed in such cases by statutes of limitations.

The virtually identical legal actions rekindle a controversy surrounding a popular local spiritual leader whose suspension by the diocese two years ago opened a series of accusations and counter-accusations culminating in Harrison's resignation in February as pastor of St. Francis.

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

"We said from the very beginning that this was always, ultimately about money," defense attorney Kyle J. Humphrey stated in a news release Wednesday. "It is shameful, but not surprising, and is just another opportunity for us to once again demonstrate Monsignor Craig's innocence."

A representative of the diocese declined to comment on the lawsuits, saying it wants to protect the rights of the diocese and the privacy of people involved. Chancellor Cheryl Sarkisian also would not say whether canon law proceedings launched against Harrison last year continue.

NO CRIMINAL CHARGES

Harrison has been investigated by the diocese and by at least three Central Valley law enforcement agencies, each of which declined to file criminal charges, either because they could not corroborate the claims of alleged victims or the statute of limitations had already expired.

Compared with other accusations against Harrison that have become public since he was placed on administrative leave in May 2019, Tuesday's lawsuits provide little detail about what he is alleged to have done while serving at St. Francis from 1989 to 1991 and at St. Joseph between 1992 and 1999. It says he befriended the accusers then groomed and sexually assaulted them.

At a news conference streamed online from Fresno Wednesday, a lawyer involved in the cases said the alleged Bakersfield victim turned 14 during the time he was repeatedly assaulted by Harrison, and that the accuser from Firebaugh was between the ages of 15 and 17 when he was allegedly abused.

OVERSIGHT ACCUSATIONS

Both filings focus more closely on what the diocese and the two churches did or didn't do to protect the accusers. The lawsuits allege they allowed abuse to happen by failing to dismiss, discipline, suspend or properly supervise Harrison.

The suits say the diocese and the churches actively shielded Harrison from responsibility for the alleged assaults, failed to acknowledge the existence of prior complaints against him, did not report accusations to civil or criminal authorities and continued to provide him financial support.

"Defendants knew or had reason to know, or were otherwise on notice, that (Harrison) had engaged in unlawful sexual-related conduct with minors in the past, and/or was continuing to engage in such conduct with (the accuser) and failed to take reasonable steps, and to implement reasonable safeguards, to avoid acts of unlawful sexual conduct in the future by (Harrison)," states the lawsuit alleging events at St. Francis.

BELOVED, TRUSTED

During Wednesday's news conference, plaintiffs attorney Jeff Anderson commended the accusers for having the courage to pursue their cases. He also acknowledged Harrison's considerable stature within Bakersfield society.

"We are very aware that Monsignor Harrison is very powerful," he said. "We're aware that he is a very prominent (individual) and we're very aware that he has been a very public pastor in and around the diocese of Fresno for many years, and (is) beloved by many and trusted by many."

"But," he continued, "what we also know and have developed a body of evidence to show, as we allege in the suits, that as powerful as he is and as prominent as he has been … he's also a predator. And it's time."

Anderson additionally called on the bishop of the Fresno diocese, Joseph V. Brennan, to release a list of local clergy who have been credibly accused of child and sexual assault.