|'It Terrified Me, I Knew It Was Going to Happen Again.' Ryan Dimaria, in His Own Words, about His 1997 Case and Michael Harris, " Hollywood Priest"
By Kay Ebeling
City of Angels
November 3, 2007
From October 23 post: "At 25 years old, Ryan DiMaria was close to suicide. He went with his family to tell Monsignor Urell that his counseling sessions in high school with Fr. Michael Harris had turned into weekly sexual molestations."
Ryan DiMaria's 1997 case in Orange County is still referred to as "the $5.2 million settlement where the guy then became a plaintiff attorney himself." A few weeks ago DiMaria told me about the betrayal, the despair, trying to get his church to listen to his family's reports about Fr. Michael A. Harris.
The summer before his sophomore year in high school DiMaria's friend killed himself. DiMaria was tormented, fearing his friend's soul was now doomed for eternity, as he'd been taught in the church. (I planned to write his story as a great work of novelization when I realized it was best told in Ryan DiMaria's own words:)
"My parents had heard all these wonderful things about Father Harris. They thought he might be the guy for me to talk to. He said, your friend is not going to hell."
Harris was blue eyed, tanned, with brownish blond hair, "One of the most charismatic individuals I'd ever seen," DiMaria said.
"Adult women adored him. But girls were never around him, it was always just boys."
I went to talk to him about that stuff, first meeting, and he said, your friend is not going to hell.
It started with him as my therapist and spiritual counselor and there was a period there when it was good, the entire time that I knew him, the counseling was good.
Right after that first meeting we went downstairs and he pulled out his day planner and said to my parents, when can Ryan meet with me next. So we started a counseling relationship summer after my freshman year.
He suggested Santa Margarita High.
(The deadlines were long past.) Harris said, Let me see what I can do about the entrance exam and application deadlines.
Let me see what I can do?
Counseling sessions went all the way through to DiMaria's Junior Year. Harris was known in upscale Newport Beach Catholic homes as "The Hollywood Priest."
WHY DID THEY CALL HIM THE HOLLYWOOD PRIEST?
DIMARIA: He would take a group of kids out to dinner, to a game, and that was absolutely the most common thing.
His house operated like a dormitory.
It was a residential 3-4 bedroom house, every room was set up.
One night I went to an event with him and I'd just gotten my license. We were going to be out late, so Harris called my parents and said, why doesn't Ryan stay overnight.
My parents thought that's reasonable. Ryan will be with not only a priest but the principal of the school.
That night Harris pulled DiMaria aside.
He said, Do you want to sleep in my bed? I could see new recliner chair he'd gotten, his big screen TV in his bedroom. The chair had a woofer underneath it and speakers on the wing tips
It was going to be the "True movie experience" he'd be showing me the movie with the sound the way it was in a theater.
I was tired.
He said do you want to sleep in my bed and I said no — and went to the other room. I woke up and he was rubbing my chest talking to me and started making bigger circles and ultimately . . .
(Edited to frustrate anyone reading this to get aroused.)
I was thinking he's going to be so embarrassed that that happened. I went downstairs and took a shower. He was sitting in the front room. I said, "I don't understand what happened I don't want it to happen again."
He said no it won't
I said, I feel like I've almost blocked it out. He said oftentimes when we feel something traumatic we block it out.
My fear was he was going to go tell someone and I was going to get in trouble. I said promise you won't tell anyone and he said it's our little secret.
HARRIS THE MANIPULATOR
His victim feels sorry for him
RYAN DIMARIA CONT'D: So here I am I'm feeling horrible for him. It's my fault. He's almost a perfect human being.
He worked so hard to cultivate his persona
After that night, he'd sit next to me on a couch during the counseling sessions. When someone does that, you take it as, this person cares, not a sexual advance.
Then after some personal talk, he'd touch me on chest and . . .
People don't understand why you go back.
I was always — every time I went back I was hoping, I gotta talk to him to make sense of this in my mind. I was caught:
The only person who could understand was the perpetrator who was also my counselor, So maybe he can talk me through it.
After the second time it happened I was thinking it must be something I'm doing. I told him I didn't want it to happen and it's still happening.
So I thought what is most powerful thing I can do and say that he can't misunderstand.
I'm thinking he thinks I want this.
So I said to him, I don't understand why you keep doing this, I'm going to kill you. That's the most clear cut way you can say I don't want this to happen.
Harris managed to manipulate the situation so the abuse still continued. I asked DiMaria to tell me more about Harris.
DIMARIA: Harris would drink, but he was not a drunk. He drank in social settings.
With Catholics and non Catholics in Orange County, he would be invited to the biggest parties and the plays. (He now lives in Oceanside in a normal house.)
Harris had boys at his house all the time — he had that movie theater in his house, it was the late eighties.
Going to Harris' house was a real special thing. We'd have movie nights sodas, chips, ice cream, and everybody knew and felt special if he got invited to the principal's house to watch movies.
Never ever once did I see or hear of a female being invited over there.
That's the way that I first came to know him, he'd call parents and say hey would Ryan like to come
During my freshman year I went to public school and I started there at Santa Margarita my sophomore year.
By the way he was friends with Michael Baker.
They were suite mates.
I think it was Llanos, Harris, a parishioner and I think Baker, he was suitemates at St. Johns Seminary in Camarillo
DIMARIA: What I believe is it (pedophilia) was and is such an acceptable part of the culture in seminary and priesthood that I think for these guys like Baker and Llanos they know it's bad but it's all done with a little bit of a giggle.
DiMaria was close to suicide in his college dorm, when he called his parents and told them the whole story. They went to Monsignor John Urell to file a complaint through the diocese.
How did it go with Urell?
DIMARIA: It was surprising to me. There was no remorse or apology or sorry this happened. It was basically he asked questions and took notes the whole time and that's how it went. One question answered then another asked.
My parents weren't supposed to come in, it was he and I only.
That's when Monsignor Urell said those famous words:
"Wow we've never heard allegations like this before."
DIMARIA: There was no inkling given, even though at the time they'd been in four and a half years litigation over another plaintiff who'd complained about Michael Harris.
Many victims came forward a decade before me
He was very insincere.
I got together with a friend from high school where Monsignor Harris was principal. He went to Harris' house (then on Lido I$le)
He went to get a jacket he'd left there and he said, Ryan has something to tell you.
Harris was living on Lido Island and this was after he was on administrative leave. He was living in a wealthy individual's home who was allowing him to live there.
My friend went in and grabbed his jacket and this house was right on the water. Harris was there and my friend said Ryan has something to ask you
So I confronted him. I said, "I just want to know why you molested me?"
His response was "I thought that's what you needed at the time. I thought you needed a little extra attention."
I immediately exploded and said what about counseling.
Harris said to me, I'm lucky to be alive and lived through this and quite frankly you are too.
DIMARIA AND his friend reported this incident and what Harris had said.
DIMARIA: So I'm thinking now the bishop has what they need, now he's admitted it in front of two people
That wasn't the original plan but it dawned on me afterward. So we called bishop and we met with him and I'm not sure if Urell was there.
And never heard from them after that.
DIMARIA: We went to the church my mom went to daily St. Timothy's Laguna Niguel and spoke to Father Bruce there.
My parents were very involved with that church there so they made an appointment to meet with Father Bruce.
Fr. Bruce knew what I was going to tell him.
I walk in and Fr. Bruce hugs and kisses me and says Sorry this happened. To me that was most inappropriate
Fr. Bruce said, How horrible it is that these priests are just being sent off to hospitals.
We knew there was admission in front of another person. We had met with bishop told him that and they said thank you very much see you later
A PERSON CAN ONLY TAKE SO MUCH
DIMARIA: You only go through that so much before you realize they really don't care. It was only at that point that we started to look at the church hierarchy in a different manner.
So we looked to law enforcement, looked to a civil suit,
Since the years I knew him, Harris had gotten a PhD at Pepperdine and had actually started a nonprofit in Orange County where they'd buy a mobile home park with government bonds from a private individual and then run it as a nonprofit to provide low income housing.
The thing that alarmed me is I remember him telling me about how great it was that they had these mobile home parks with playgrounds and computer rooms.
And it terrified me. I knew it was going to happen again. The reason I filed the lawsuit was not to get beat up in press and no one had gotten money yet, it was.
After the church did nothing but interrogate me and treat my family like crap, and after having an admission in front of another person and not doing anything,
It was knowing Harris was buying these mobile homes that made me file the lawsuit.
AN EERIE COINCIDENCE
My mom and dad in early sixties and early seventies had invested in mobile home parks and since then had bought more. So we'd talked about them in the past.
I remember driving around the day and I was trying to decide if I wanted to file a lawsuit and I thought to myself this is going to be an unhappy thing and I need to feel like it's a success otherwise I can't do it. What if something goes wrong.
What I tell people today is when you get a settlement it's not as if a light switch comes on and your life is suddenly bright.
I went to law school while my suit was going on, and it helped me understand the process. It didn't make me feel real comfortable but at least I understood the process, what it meant to be deposed. What else could happen.
But I'm still surprised at what the church attorneys do.
HOW DID RYAN DIMARIA END UP AS
A Plaintiffs' Attorney?
DIMARIA: I never had the intention of being a clergy abuse or even personal injury lawyer, I actually had to fight to get onto these cases. I came to Manly's firm as a clerk to do real estate. He never pushed and I never pushed and I never thought of doing it. It came to a point, kind of like how I felt compelled to file a lawsuit myself.
I felt compelled to take on these cases —
You make yourself so good at keeping outward appearances
I did internships, jobs, while going to college. I worked really hard and people thought that I was a success
But I was doing that to avoid thinking about what happened with Fr. Harris.
We now know that a major player in the creation of Church policy for the pedophile priest crisis was Msgr. Alan Placa who now "whispers in Rudy Giuliani's ear" as his close friend and $100K/year advisor. (See October 30 post.) A decade later in California John Urell was putting Placa's policy into practice when Ryan DiMaria came with his family to report Michael Harris.
MICHAEL HARRIS'S CAREER:
FROM LEON PODLE'S BOOK: SACRILEGE
Harris, known as the "Hollywood priest" because of his good looks and charisma, was a wildly popular money raiser. At the 1987 opening of the Orange diocese's new high school "to a roar of applause from the audience, he ripped open his black clerical shirt to reveal a Superman logo. The S stood for Santa Margarita High. Harris was the guiding force behind the new school and its first principal. He had raised $26 million for the school where he found several good candidates for his bed."
More to Come. . .
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