BAKERSFIELD, Calif. (KGET) — The team of attorneys representing Monsignor Craig Harrison, the Bakersfield priest placed on administrative leave last year over unresolved allegations of sexual impropriety, discussed their client’s standoff with the Catholic Dioceses of Fresno at a Wednesday press conference.
“Defiant” would summarize their demeanor.
Harrison has in many ways been more than just the face of Catholicism in Bakersfield. To many, he has been the face of clerical compassion, too, presiding over religious and secular events alike — both public and private — for decades.
So in April 2019, when the Diocese of Fresno — which oversees Kern County Catholicism — announced it was looking into allegations of a sexual nature involving the popular, well-loved priest, it shocked not just parishioners at Saint Francis of Assisi Church in downtown Bakersfield, but non-Catholics as well. And it divided the city.
But the investigation grew into a standoff after a representative of Fresno Bishop Joseph Brennan went on a San Francisco public radio station and discussed the charges against the Bakersfield priest.
Harrison responded by filing a defamation suit against the Diocese, which for the past several months has been demanding that Harrison not only refrain from even the appearance of performing priestly duties but that he withdraw the legal complaint.
Harrison has refused to do so, and his attorneys reiterated as much Wednesday.
“That was the Diocese’s response –. the threatening letters,” said Bakersfield attorney Craig Edmonston. “… They said, ‘Drop your lawsuit, Monsignor Craig, that was based on our defamatory statements that were broadcast nationwide. Drop your lawsuit or we’re gonna punish you within the church.’ That’s what this legal case is about.”
And now, months later after the suit was filed, the situation appears to be coming to a head.
An exchange of letters between the Diocese and Harrison’s legal team — virtually the only mode of communication between the sides for months now — has the Diocese declaring that its deadline for Harrison to withdraw his suit has passed and Harrison must now face a penalty.
But what that penalty might be remains to be seen.
Is it suspension?
Is it laicisation, which is one’s official removal from the clergy?
Or is it excommunication — complete separation from the Catholic Church?
That’s what Harrison attorney Kyle Humphrey would like to know.
“It is unfortunate,” he said, “that the retaliation, and the threats, and what we believe to be imminent punishment, unjust punishment, from the bishop is happening.”
Efforts to get comment from the Diocese of Fresno on Wednesday were not successful.
On Tuesday, though, the Diocese, through Chancellor Cheryl Sarkisian, called the matter a confidential church issue between the bishop and one of his priests.
Harrison, through his attorneys, has continued to express his innocence.
And now we wait.
Will Harrison ever return as a priest? It looks doubtful. That’s the word that we’re hearing from his attorneys.