Prosecutors to Audit Fresno Catholic Diocese Files for Potential Sex Abuse Cases

The Catholic Diocese of Fresno announced in February 2019 it would conduct an independent review of clergy files dating back to 1922 and release a list of priests accused of sexual misconduct. (Alex Hall/KQED)

District attorney offices throughout the Central Valley are banding together to audit the Catholic Diocese of Fresno’s review of its own records for cases of possible sexual abuse, according to Madera County District Attorney Sally Moreno. 

At least seven counties, including Fresno and Kern, have agreed to review files or receive cases for prosecution in their jurisdictions. Moreno told KQED about the prosecutors' plan late Tuesday.

Earlier this year the Fresno Diocese announced it would conduct an independent review of clergy files dating back to 1922 and release a list of priests accused of sexual misconduct, an effort that other Catholic dioceses around the country have made in recent months.

The diocese hired former FBI Executive Assistant Director Kathleen McChesney, of Kinsale Management Consulting, to go through the diocesan records.

Moreno said she aims to make her own determination about whether the review is handled properly. Prosecutors from her office will identify records that could be handed over to law enforcement and cases that can still be prosecuted under the state’s statute of limitations. Those that involve priests who are currently active in the community will be a high priority, Moreno said.

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“The Catholic Church as a whole, they don’t have — at this point — credibility to carry forward this kind of an investigation on their own,” Moreno said. “I think they understand that they need help demonstrating that they’re being transparent. And if they’re not being transparent, then we’re there to expose that.”

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So far, district attorneys’ offices in Merced and Mariposa counties have also agreed to participate, Moreno said. The Catholic Diocese of Fresno covers eight counties and extends to the Nevada state line.

“(Moreno) asked me if I’d be interested and I said definitely. I’m definitely interested,” said Mariposa County District Attorney Walter Wall. “The church as an entity has not been the best watchdog of itself. I think it's important the elected officials who are accountable to the public look at those records and draw their own conclusions for the benefit of the public." 

District attorneys from Kern, Tulare and Inyo counties said they would not personally review files but would assist in investigating and prosecuting cases that might surface during the course of the audit, which will be led by Moreno’s office.

Recent accusations against Bakersfield priest added urgency

Moreno, who is Catholic, said she had the idea for the audit soon after taking office in January. She accelerated plans to begin the review this summer because of allegations made recently against a longtime Bakersfield priest, Monsignor Craig Harrison.

In April, two men accused Harrison of sexual misconduct when they were teenagers in the 1980s and ‘90s.

Harrison has served as pastor at St. Francis of Assisi Catholic Church in Bakersfield for nearly two decades. He is also the chaplain for the Bakersfield Police Department and Kern County Sheriff’s Office.

According to a diocese press release, one man told diocese staff that Harrison had inappropriately touched him when he was between 14 and 16 years old. According to police, the abuse allegedly occurred in Firebaugh, where Harrison worked as a priest from 1992-1999.

The allegations were first reported to church officials on April 12. The diocese waited until April 15 to report the allegations to the Firebaugh Police Department. The Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests (SNAP) criticized the diocese for waiting three days to contact law enforcement.

“The police stations are open 24/7 and the phones always work,” Dan McNevin of SNAP California said. “All it required was for the bishop to pick the phone up and call police and say, ‘We’ve got a report, it just came in. We are discharging our mandatory duty to report.’ He didn’t do that. It took three days.”

McNevin said SNAP would call on the Fresno County District Attorney’s Office to investigate why the diocese waited an entire weekend to contact law enforcement.

“The trouble with these reports going to the bishop before reporting to police,” McNevin said, “is that the time that it takes to do that reporting is time when evidence can be destroyed, when witnesses can be tampered with.”

Several days later, a second man came forward with allegations against Harrison. This time, diocese staff directed the alleged victim to make a report to police directly. A lieutenant with the Merced Police Department, the agency currently investigating the case, confirmed that a 46-year-old man accused Harrison of engaging in sexual misconduct when the man was a teenager in Merced in the late 1980s.

Harrison worked as a priest in Merced from 1987 to 1989 at Our Lady of Mercy, St. Patrick’s and Sacred Heart Catholic churches, according to the Fresno Diocese.

The Fresno Sheriff’s Office said Harrison was questioned about other cases in 1997 and 1998, but they were not sexually related and were found to be unsubstantiated, a spokesman said.

The Diocese of Fresno said it is cooperating with law enforcement and notifying other churches where Harrison has worked. According to the diocese, Harrison also worked in Mojave from 1991 to 1992 and in Bakersfield again from 1989 to 1991.

“When something like this happens, people ask: What’s being done?” Moreno said. “I just know that if the Diocese of Fresno comes out and says, ‘Hey we audited, and everything’s cool!’ people are gonna say, ‘Oh, no way. You can’t audit yourself.’ So we’re here to say we’re here and we’re checking it over.”

Harrison’s attorney, Kyle J. Humphrey, said his client was innocent, and that the diocese has kept him in the dark about the allegations and the investigation.

“What is there to investigate?” Humphrey asked. “Someone comes forward 25 or 30 years in time and says something happened, but we don’t know that it did.

“It's possible people misremember things,” Humphrey said. “And it’s also possible that people need attention, that they have mental challenges, that they have addiction issues, that they’ve just had horrible lives and they have an opportunity to damage others and they get some satisfaction from it.”

When asked if Harrison has ever been accused of sexual misconduct, aside from the most recent allegations, Humphrey said he hadn’t heard of any allegations that would require him to have any involvement.

A group of Bakersfield parishioners organized a prayer vigil to show support for Harrison after the most recent allegations were made public.

The Fresno Bee reported that Harrison is the fifth priest in the Fresno Catholic Diocese to be investigated and placed on paid leave due to allegations of sexual and other misconduct in recent months.

“I can’t think of another diocese the size of Fresno that has five men being investigated simultaneously in 2019,” McNevin said. “Oakland right now has two. Santa Rosa doesn’t have any. L.A. has a couple. L.A. is five times the size of Fresno. So there’s something very abnormal about the numbers in Fresno.”

McNevin said he was encouraged by news of the Central Valley prosecutors’ audit.

“Bishops have been hiding those who did the abuse,” said McNevin. “You can’t get to the root until you get into the files.”

“I worked for several years as a sexual assault prosecutor. I know what we can prove and I know what we can’t,” McNevin added. “If it’s there and we can prove it, we’re gonna prove it. And if it’s not, then we’re gonna say, ‘It’s not there, and we’ve looked.’ ”

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