|Molestation Allegations Dim Star of O.C. Priest
Diocese: Popular Santa Margarita Principal Denies Abuses at Mater Dei. He Quit Amid Church Investigation
By Tracy Weber
Los Angeles Times
October 16, 1994
Nine months after one of Orange County's best-known priests abruptly quit as the founding principal of Santa Margarita High School, allegations have surfaced that Msgr. Michael Harris sexually molested students in his office when he held the same job at Mater Dei.
In a lawsuit filed last month in Orange County Superior Court, David A. Price, now 29, claims that the priest regularly abused him during school hours over the four years he attended Mater Dei. Price has contended the priest would summon him to his office with special hall passes delivered to his classes, and would then force him to engage in sex acts.
Through his attorney, Harris "flatly and completely" denied the lawsuit's allegations last week. His attorney also said there was no connection between Harris' sudden departure from Santa Margarita earlier this year and allegations of sexual misconduct.
Officials with the Roman Catholic Diocese of Orange, which is also a target of Price's lawsuit, said they had not been formally served and could not comment.
But diocesan officials on Friday disclosed for the first time that Harris had been asked to take a leave of absence in January while an investigation into similar allegations was underway.
They also revealed that Harris' right "to function as a priest" was revoked when he refused to abide by orders given him by Bishop Norman McFarland after the investigation.
"The diocese investigated the matter and as a result he was told to seek spiritual and medical treatment," said Msgr. Lawrence Baird, the diocese spokesman. Baird said Harris is presently studying for a graduate degree in education at Pepperdine University.
With the filing of the latest suit, Harris becomes the eighth Orange County priest or brother known to have been charged or sued over the past six years for allegedly committing sexual improprieties with minors.
According to court documents and interviews with Price, family members of other alleged victims and church officials, the undoing of Father Harris began when the mother of another former Mater Dei student quietly approached diocesan officials last December.
Lenora Colice told church officials that she had asked Harris to pay special attention to her troubled teen-age son. Instead, she said, her son related his allegations that the priest had molested him during his junior and senior years. And she had in hand what she thought was an apology.
After her son died of AIDS last year, Colice wrote Harris to confront him with her son's allegations, and to say she could never forgive him. In his Dec. 9 response, Harris wrote: "Through counseling and other resources I have endeavored to work through many things. . . . It may not be any consolation, but I am very sorry."
John Barnett, Harris' personal attorney, said the letter that Harris wrote to Lenora Colice is not "an admission of any misconduct whatsoever. . . . A person with less sensitivity would have said, 'Your son is a liar.'
"Father Harris counseled thousands of students and he flatly denies the allegations that have been lodged against him," he said.
Barnett, a prominent criminal defense attorney, said Harris stepped down because of his "desire to have a change in his life" after two decades of service. There was no connection between Harris' decision to leave Santa Margarita High and the allegations of sexual abuse, Barnett said.
In January -- only weeks after Colice's talk with the diocese -- Harris unexpectedly took an indefinite leave of absence from his high-profile job at Santa Margarita High School, the state-of-the-art, $26-million gem of the Catholic school system in Orange County.
Harris told students and friends that he needed a break from the stress of his job. There was no mention of any allegation of sexual misdeeds, or of any pressure from his superiors to take a leave of absence.
It wasn't until March, two months after Harris quit, that diocesan officials publicly disclosed that he had been accused of "sexual improprieties." Church officials said then that Harris denied the charges, and they had been unable to locate "anyone who has any allegation to make of sexual misconduct with him or her by Msgr. Harris."
In June, yet another Mater Dei student from the same era came forward -- David Price. Long before he approached church authorities, Price had been seeing a therapist. Last December, about the same time that Colice was complaining to the diocese, Price's therapist filed a report with the Orange County Social Services Agency accusing Harris of child molestation.
In the lawsuit he filed in mid-September, Price alleged that he had repressed all memory of the incidents until August, 1993, when it gradually came back to him, and he started seeing a psychotherapist.
Price said his contact with Harris began when his stepmother turned to the church and the priest for help. His father had died five years earlier, and his stepmother thought he needed counseling and a strong, stable man to guide him. David Price was the 10th of her 14 stepchildren.
At the time, Harris was the principal of Mater Dei, where the boy was a freshman. Harris was a star of the Catholic school system, heading one of its best-loved institutions. When Harris paid special attention to her son -- and to her -- the boy's mother felt flattered.
But behind the closed door of his office at Mater Dei, Harris' special attention turned abusive, the lawsuit charges.
Price said the priest "told me it was our secret; that it was part of counseling. I saw that my mother adored him, how other people looked up to him. Here I was a special kid.
"There'd be 5,000 people at a football game and he'd spot me in the crowd and mouth, 'Hi, David,' " said Price, who is targeting both Harris and the diocese in his lawsuit.
Confused and unsure, Price said, he never told anyone -- until he sought psychological help in late 1993.
In June of this year, Price and his therapist told diocesan officials of Price's molestation allegations. Price said church officials repeatedly assured them that Harris' record was spotless. They dismissed Colice's allegations as "hearsay," Price said. Soon after, Price decided to sue.
"It's time everyone realized there is a dark side we have to deal with and the Catholic Church is no exception," said Theodore S. Wentworth, Price's Irvine-based attorney. "What we have here is a major, major betrayal."
For Price, the alleged betrayal started at home. Price's birth mother died of pancreatic cancer when he was 5, leaving 14 children. His father remarried a quadriplegic woman three years later. Six weeks after their marriage, his father died of a heart attack.
His stepmother, the 14 children now hers to raise, turned to the church for help. Priests were regular dinner guests and Price spent much of his childhood serving as an altar boy and working in the local parish rectory. Price's stepmother became friends with Father Harris, the young principal of Mater Dei.
Harris was in his early 30s then. A hometown boy, he grew up in Brea. His mother was Catholic and his father was Jewish. He followed his mother's faith, attending Mater Dei, then St. John's Seminary in Camarillo. He was ordained as a priest in 1972. He served first as a religion teacher at Bishop Amat High School and associate pastor at Immaculate Conception Church in Monrovia, where he is remembered for sermons that were captivating and reverent beyond his young years.
Then in 1978, he became the principal of the county's premier high school. A decade later, he became the first principal of Santa Margarita, after helping to raise nearly half the $26 million spent building the school.
When Price entered Mater Dei as a freshman in 1979, his mother turned to Harris to help Price cope with the lingering loss of his father.
Soon after, Price said, he received the first of what became monthly hall passes from Harris' office. Harris started out talking from behind his desk, Price alleged, but soon sat on the couch next to Price, putting his arm around him and rubbing his chest. Price contends that such activity soon escalated into what the lawsuit contends was sexual molestation.
The next month, Price received another specially colored hall pass from Harris. This time Harris was more aggressive, Price alleged. After that the passes came about once a month. Sometimes Harris would pull the boy from class to go to the principal's diocese-owned home in Orange, according to Price and court documents. Once, Price said, he left class during a midterm exam that he never had to complete.
Price said he wrestled with feeling special because of the attention. Harris would single him out from a crowd of wealthier, more popular students for a hug and a chat. He wrote a glowing message in Price's freshman yearbook, thanking him for "being a great part of it all."
A devoted film buff, Harris would invite Price and his friends over to watch movies. Price said Harris had a projector set up in the wet bar of his home and he'd pull back curtains on his living room wall to screen favorite films.
"The man knew how to make you feel special," Price said.
Price said he could never tell his stepmother, who died when he was 16. "Father Harris would take me to dinner, then he'd come in and kiss her before I even could. How in the world could I tell her? She adored him."
For Lenora Colice's boy, Vincent, it was almost the same story, she said. Colice said she had turned to Harris to counsel her four boys after a neighbor, a parish lay minister, molested them. The neighbor served five years in a state hospital, she said.
Harris became almost like a member of the family, the shoulder Colice leaned on when her husband died of cancer, she said. He helped get Vincent, a mediocre student, into Mater Dei his junior year. The family was flattered by his attention.
"At a party you'd talk about him, it was like prestigious," Lenora Colice remembered. "People would say, 'You know Father Harris? You've actually had him in your home?' "
There was never a whisper of a problem. But after high school, Vincent Colice refused to go to church and began to lead a promiscuous gay life, his mother said. Then in 1992, shortly after his condition was diagnosed as AIDS, his mother suggested he return to the church and seek counseling with Harris.
"I'll never forget. He blurted it out to me. Blurted it out in such an angry way, 'Father Harris molested me when I was young,' " Colice remembered. "He (Vincent) swore me to secrecy."
Then after he died, Colice couldn't hold it in any longer and complained to the diocese.
Price said he began to come to terms with the alleged abuse after a traumatic life event sent him into therapy last year.
"You can live in denial a long, long time about this," he said.
He and Colice said they know they are facing an angry public assault for making their allegations about the widely popular and respected priest -- a man they still find it hard to hate.
Also named in Price's suit is Father Gary Pacheco, a Franciscan who worked at Saints Simon and Jude Roman Catholic Church in Huntington Beach in the late 1970s. Pacheco allegedly molested Price at a friend's home, according to the suit. Pacheco has since left the order and could not be reached for comment. Diocesan officials said Pacheco was never under their direct supervision, and they had no comment about the allegations against him.
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