Allegation Against Bakersfield Priest Previously Deemed 'Unsubstantiated' Now Under Review By Fresno Diocese

Pope Francis pauses in front of a sculpture of Spanish-born Junipero Serra, the Franciscan Friar known for starting missions in California, in Statuary Hall at the U.S. Capitol on September 24, 2015 in Washington, DC. (Michael Reynolds-Pool/Getty Images)

More than 20 years after a man first reported he was abused by a Central Valley priest, the Catholic Diocese of Fresno is revisiting the allegation after several other individuals have come forward accusing the same priest. The diocese and Fresno County law enforcement officials had previously said the claim, first raised in 1998, was unsubstantiated.

The man, who has chosen not to disclose his identity, says that Bakersfield priest Monsignor Craig Harrison — who is currently on leave while under investigation for alleged sexual misconduct — inappropriately touched him when he was a teenager in Firebaugh. Harrison denies the allegations, his attorney said.

According to the man’s attorney, Joseph George, the alleged abuse happened over the course of a year from 1992 to 1993 while the man was living at the rectory of St. Joseph Catholic Church in Firebaugh.

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Harrison worked as a priest at St. Joseph from 1992 to 1999.

The man said that Harrison would inspect his genitals each night when he returned home under the pretext of checking to see if the teen had used drugs. He was 16 and 17 years old at the time.

In 1998, the man filed a report about the alleged abuse with the Firebaugh Police Department and the case was referred to the Fresno County Sheriff’s Office, George said.

A spokesman for the Fresno County Sheriff’s Office said Harrison was questioned but not arrested. The sheriff's office ultimately declared the allegation "unsubstantiated."

A case against Craig Harrison was submitted to the Fresno County District Attorney's Office's sexual assault unit that same year, according to a spokesperson, but no charges were filed.

Four years later, the man went to the Fresno Diocese to again report the alleged abuse. Diocesan administrative officials interviewed him at the time.

“The interview is curious to say the least,” George said, referring to a transcript he said his client received from diocesan staff when they recently met with him in his home. “It’s biased.”

During the interview, George said, the former director of human resources and former chancellor of the Fresno Diocese questioned the man and described his allegations as "harassment."

They also pointed out that the man’s parents had given their son permission to live in the rectory and that Harrison had spoken to the man’s parents. According to the transcript, the man replied that his parents only spoke Spanish, George said.

“He felt put off,” George said, “and said, ‘at some point I think I’m gonna read about this in The Fresno Bee when other people come forward. […] This happened to others. I’m sure I’m not alone.’”

California law requires that clergy and church records custodians report suspected abuse or neglect of children to law enforcement.

“There’s no way that the information that was conveyed to the diocese in 2002 would not create a reasonable suspicion of child abuse,” George said.

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George said the man also provided diocesan personnel with the names of other potential victims.

“He said he never — capital 'N' — heard back from the diocese until this current flurry of reported allegations,” George said.

Since mid-April, three other men have come forward alleging Harrison touched them inappropriately or engaged in other sexual misconduct with them as teenagers. Two allege Harrison inspected their genitals under similar circumstances. Another alleges Harrison pinned him against a wall and rubbed his erect penis against his body through clothing.

All of the allegations were reported to have occurred in Firebaugh, Merced and Bakersfield, cities where Harrison worked as a priest at different points in time since the late 1980s.

Most of the victims came from low-income, Latino families, according to George.

‘I believe him’

The diocesan review board is now reconsidering the allegation first reported in 1998 and again in 2002, along with an unknown number of other claims of sexual abuse by Fresno Diocese clergy dating back to 1922.

Fresno Diocese chancellor and spokeswoman Teresa Dominguez said she recently visited the man at his home to apologize.

“I personally expressed my concern for him; told him that I believe him, and apologized for the pain this matter has caused him. I told him that I will support him and be an advocate for him in any way that I can,” said Dominguez in an email.

Dominguez said current diocesan administrative staff only recently became aware of the man’s allegation from 2002. She said that she was working in a different capacity at a church in Hanford and had no knowledge of the allegation at the time.

Harrison’s attorney, Kyle Humphrey, questioned the credibility of the man who alleged the abuse.

“This allegation, if it is the one that was previously reported to Firebaugh, was unfounded by the Firebaugh Police Department originally and afterwards,” Humphrey said. “And if it is the same person, we believe we are in possession of interviews that, again, if it is the same person, we believe will establish a complete lack of credibility.”

Humphrey also criticized the Fresno Diocese for talking publicly about the report.

“The fact that a member of the diocese would come out and place my client in a false light, and essentially accuse my client of sexual offense, just shows me how little regard this diocese has for priests. Somebody has to stand up for the priest,” Humphrey said.

Charges Never Filed

It’s unclear what made the Fresno County Sheriff's Office and prosecutors conclude the allegations made in 1998 were unsubstantiated.

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“I can't say why the claim was unsubstantiated because I simply don't know,” sheriff's spokesman Tony Botti said, pointing to an absence of information in the report made two decades ago.

“Maybe the evidence didn't support the claim? There is always a chance that the victim chose to withdraw their claim or refused to testify. But again, all of these theories would be speculation at best,” Botti said.

A spokesperson for the Fresno County District Attorney’s Office declined to comment on the earlier investigation, saying it could still be used as evidence in future cases.

The Fresno County Sheriff’s Office has not moved to reinvestigate the case.

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