the Sins of the Father
Msgr. Michael Harris lost his priesthood over sex-abuse claims, but the former Orange County principal's aura endures
By William Lobdell and Jean O. Pasco
It was the grand opening of Orange County's new Catholic high school, and Msgr. Michael A. Harris proudly surveyed the hundreds of students and parents who sat before him.
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.
The superhero insignia also spoke to the image Harris projected, a mix of celebrity and saintliness, and to the feelings of reverence he inspired in Southern California's Catholic community. Known as "Father Hollywood" for his good looks and charm, he raised millions for the church and formed tight friendships with judges, developers, philanthropists and other members of Orange County's elite.
[Photo Captions - Michael Harris, above in a 1991 photograph, was placed on "inactive leave" by the Diocese of Orange in 1994. He has since started a new career as a developer of low-income housing. Photographer: Ken Hively/Los Angeles Times. Michael Harris helped raise $26 million to build Santa Margarita High, above, and served as the school's founding principal. Photographer: Kevin Casey/Los Angeles Times]
That was one side of Michael Harris. The other was revealed to psychologists and doctors who evaluated him years later, after a former student accused him of molestation. Harris confided to the doctors that he was afraid to pray alone, afraid of what thoughts would surface when he found himself at one with God.
"Michael is not able to reconcile the good persona that he shows to the world with the self-loathing and conflict he feels within," according to a church-ordered evaluation.
In 1994, seven years after that joyous grand opening, Harris was eased out as principal of Santa Margarita and quietly barred from wearing the collar. Over the next few years, four more former students would accuse him of molestation.
In August, the Roman Catholic Church paid $5.2 million to one of those men. It is believed to be the largest publicly disclosed payment the church has ever made to an individual victim of sexual abuse. Though Harris denied wrongdoing, the Diocese of Orange issued a public apology to all five of his accusers and agreed to a set of measures designed to deter future abuses and assist victims.
Harris' days as a priest are over, but his aura has endured. His hold on his admirers remains strong. Despite his public disgrace, many continue to believe in him. Some still have the souvenir Superman shirts he handed out at that opening assembly 15 years ago.
With help from wealthy supporters, Harris has started a new career--as a developer of low-income housing. Through nonprofit organizations he established under the name Caritas--Latin for charity or love--he purchased mobile-home parks in Orange County. He collects government subsidies for renting the units to low-income people. His nonprofits paid Harris $91,000 in 1998, the most recent year for which figures are available.
Members of the Caritas boards include two prominent home builders, a retired judge and philanthropist Roger Kirwan, chairman of the Orange County Performing Arts Center.
"I believe in him until proven otherwise," said Dr. Burr McKeehan, a board member and longtime friend. "We're all talking about the bad he's supposedly done. The good he's done is amazing. Without him, that school [Santa Margarita] would never be there."
Childhood Pain From 'a Lack of Nurturance'
Harris was raised in Brea, an old oil town on the northern tip of Orange County that became a bedroom community of tract houses and strip malls.
Harris declined to be interviewed for this story. Details of his boyhood appear in a report by doctors at St. Luke's Institute in Maryland, a treatment center for troubled priests where Harris was evaluated for five days in 1994. The report became part of the public record in a lawsuit filed by one of his accusers, Ryan DiMaria. This is the case that was settled in August.
Harris told therapists at St. Luke's that his was a difficult childhood: His mother was an alcoholic who drank herself to death. His father worked several jobs and was rarely at home.
The report said that Harris' teenage years were marked by "a lack of nurturance and comfort and [by] emotional isolation."
"At later points in his life," the doctors wrote, "some of Michael's actions appear to be directed at receiving the comfort that he did not receive as a child."
Harris attended Orange County's leading Catholic school, Mater Dei High School in Santa Ana. He was involved in music, the student council and theater. Harris played the lead in the comedy "The Worm Will Squirm." His character was a buffoonish high school principal. He went on to St. John's Seminary in Camarillo, earning undergraduate and graduate degrees.
Classmates said Harris was influenced by the priests at Mater Dei and emerged quickly as a leader.
"Like many of us, he had a priest or two in his background who had encouraged him," said Father Theodore Olson, a classmate who is now pastor of St. Angela Merici Church in Brea. "And he found the idea of service very attractive and thought it would be a good use of his talents."
Finding His Calling as High School Teacher
Ordained in 1972, Harris served as a parish associate pastor in Monrovia until he found his passion: teaching high school. Shortly thereafter, he began weekly sessions with a psychiatrist for "anxiety and sexual conflicts," court records show. The therapy went on for nine months.
He taught at St. Pius X High School in Downey before landing a job at his alma mater, Mater Dei, in 1975. There, he quickly gained notice as a motivating teacher who showed classic films in class to illustrate religious concepts. He was promoted to vice principal and then principal in 1978.
Mater Dei was the largest Catholic high school on the West Coast. It was also an athletic powerhouse, producing championship football and basketball teams. For prominent Catholic families, Mater Dei was the pick of the parochial schools.
As principal, Harris came in contact with many of Orange County's top developers, lawyers and businessmen. He made a strong impression on many of them.
By all accounts, he loved the society spotlight. Each year, he modeled in a charity fashion show, even wearing motorcycle leathers as one of "Heaven's Angels."
Paul Salata, a former professional football player and retired Newport Beach businessman, said he thought of Harris as "just one of the boys," a guy who could talk about last night's game or greet friends with gentle humor.
"I'd say, 'Hi there, Rev, I hope you won't hold it against me that I'm not Catholic,' " said Salata, a member of the Greek Orthodox Church. "He'd say, 'Don't worry. I'm an equal-opportunity pastor.' He could have taken off the collar and done anything."
Jim Schmitt, a retired administrative judge who lives in San Clemente, met Harris in the early 1980s at an orientation meeting for potential Mater Dei students and parents.
Harris stood at center court in the Mater Dei gym, addressing the packed crowd. As he talked, he moved from free-throw line to free-throw line to get as close as possible to the audience in the bleachers.
"You felt like he was talking to you," Schmitt said. "I came home that night and thought, 'My, I want [my son] Charlie to go there.' "
During his son's four years at the school--and for years after as Mater Dei's basketball announcer--Schmitt watched Harris with admiration. When students misbehaved at football games, Harris, standing on the dirt track in front of the cheerleaders, turned toward the stands and hooked his thumbs on his belt.
"He silenced the whole student body with just a look," Schmitt said. "It was like, 'What are you doing? I'm amazed that you kids would be so unruly and unpleasant. I'm here and I disapprove.'
"He didn't have to get on the microphone. That was the kind of respect he had."
Harris frequently invited students--a mix of athletes, drama club members and kids in the band--over to his house for pizza, sodas and popcorn, and movies, games and television.
"You know how some people have library shelves filled with books?" said Mike Carpenter, a 1992 graduate of Santa Margarita who remains a Harris admirer. "Monsignor had movies, thousands of movies."
Schmitt said he and scores of other parents worked closely with Harris for years and never saw any behavior that made them suspicious.
The principal seemed to be everywhere, attending almost all school sports events and extracurricular activities. He later told doctors that he worked 14 to 15 hours a day, seven days a week. He often stood at the entrance of the school gym or theater, greeting parents and boosters. He gave giant bear hugs to nearly every student he met. His office door was always wide open for students who wanted to talk.
"To a man or woman, we all thought Mike Harris was as great as you're going to get," Schmitt said. "He was a God-like presence on campus."
The Natural Choice as New School's Principal
When prominent Catholics, in the mid-1980s, sought to build a new high school in fast-growing south Orange County, Harris was an easy pick for founding principal. He was one of the diocese's most prominent priests, with strong ties to business leaders and philanthropists. Harris would help raise $26 million to build Santa Margarita High.
Steve Hopkins, a real estate developer, attended a breakfast at the exclusive Pacific Club in Newport Beach, where business leaders were pitched on the new Catholic high school. Local executives began the presentation. Then Harris took the stage.
"It was like someone turned the lights up three more notches," Hopkins recalled. "It was like bringing in Anthony Robbins. He was a great salesman, in the best sense of the word. He was very sincere. They wouldn't have raised the money without him."
Instead of a simple appeal to the heart, something the audience had heard before from the church, Harris wowed donors with a package of materials that had been professionally developed, including schematic drawings, cost tables and fund-raising plans.
"That's what businessmen want, a business approach, instead of just coming with a hand out," said one executive who attended the meeting. "He also greeted or said goodbye to everyone in the room. That's a talent right there."
Harris chose the eagle as the new school's mascot inspired by Psalm 91, which says God "shall cover thee with his feathers, and under his wings shalt thou trust," and Isaiah 40:31, which proclaims: "They that wait upon the Lord . . . shall mount up with wings as eagles."
As at Mater Dei, Harris was close to students.
"It was like he was president of the corporation, but he knew everyone," Hopkins said. "He made sure the kids were comfortable and liked what they were doing."
Mike Carpenter, who played on the Santa Margarita basketball team, took a houseboat vacation on Lake Shasta with Harris, along with four other boys, four girls and two parents.
Harris treated the students as if he were a best friend, even water-skiing with them on the lake.
Carpenter, who now works in commercial real estate in Orange County, said he was struck by how eager the priest was to bond with the teens.
"He had a lot of energy, and he was almost overly friendly," he said. "I could tell how he could get so close to so many people."
In 1990, Pope John II elevated Harris to monsignor, an honored rank between father and bishop. He continued to raise his profile. He wrote a commentary for the Los Angeles Times in 1991, urging parents to teach their children to abstain from sex.
"As an educator faced with the challenging task of helping teenagers develop values, it is time to confront the compulsive hedonism that plagues adolescents," Harris wrote. "In order to accomplish anything of value, we need to learn to delay gratification."
Deathbed Declaration Begins the Downfall
In late 1993, accusations from Harris' past began to haunt him.
On his deathbed, Vincent Colice of Stanton gave his mother permission to go public with a secret he had told her two years earlier: that Harris had sexually assaulted him while he was a student at Mater Dei from 1977 to 1979. He was dying of AIDS, which he contracted years after his alleged encounter with Harris.
Lenora Colice wrote Harris in November 1993, accusing him of molesting her son. She sent a copy of the letter to diocesan officials.
A week later, Harris replied to Colice.
"Through counseling and other resources I have endeavored to work through many things," he wrote. "Hard work and prayer have helped. It may not be any consolation, but I am very sorry."
The letter was later entered into the court record in the Ryan DiMaria lawsuit. Harris' attorneys said it was meant to offer consolation, not as an admission of guilt.
After receiving Colice's letter, as well as anonymous accusations made through a lawyer by two other former students, the diocese asked Harris to step down temporarily as principal of Santa Margarita. In January 1994, he took a leave of absence, citing job-related stress.
Jeff Hopkins, son of developer Steve Hopkins and a guard on Santa Margarita's championship basketball team who graduated in 1994, remembered the day Harris left.
"The vibe at our school changed completely--for the worse," said Hopkins, who would often hang out at Harris' house along with other teammates.
"I wouldn't trade my four years with him as my principal for anything," said Hopkins, who now works in commercial real estate in Los Angeles.
Harris resigned as principal in February 1994. In a letter to supporters, he said he was leaving because of "stress that has been building for a long time." He did not mention the molestation allegations, which were not yet public knowledge.
Two days later, the Diocese of Orange flew Harris to St. Luke's in Maryland. Though depressed and anxious as he revealed disturbing childhood secrets, Harris impressed his evaluators with an external demeanor "striking for its calmness," the medical report said.
Harris' appearance was so polished that other patients started to confide in him "as if he were a therapist," according to the report.
"Michael has always been most concerned about appearances and his reputation at the expense of his own healing and inner health," wrote Dr. Stephen J. Rossetti of the St. Luke's staff. "As a result, he has been applauded by the community, but he has become isolated, confused, anxious and depressed."
He told the St. Luke's team that he couldn't confirm or deny the allegations of sexual abuse if the information were to be given to the diocese, the medical report said.
He told doctors that he had suffered from sexual conflicts for years and suggested that his affection for his students could have been misinterpreted. He also said he was sometimes sexually aroused while hugging adolescent boys.
When asked what an adult might feel if he were sexually involved with an adolescent, Harris replied that the adult "might want to 'care, to reach out, to console, to love,' " the report said.
The evaluation was sent to church officials in early March 1994. The doctors diagnosed Harris with same-sex paraphilia and ephebophilia--a sexual attraction to adolescent boys and sexual deviance. They also concluded that "there is substance to the allegations" of molestation and recommended in-patient treatment, which Harris refused.
The report said that usually in such cases, "the allegations that have surfaced are only a few of the actual incidents of abuse that have occurred."
In April, the insurance carrier for the Diocese of Orange informed church officials that it would not cover any legal costs related to Harris' conduct after Dec. 16, 1993--the date on which the diocese told the insurer about Lenora Colice's letter. Officials at the company, Ordinary Mutual, said that based on the church's own investigation, there appeared to be substance to the charges.
Two months later, the church placed Harris on "inactive leave," meaning he could no longer preside over liturgical services or collect a church salary. He never said another Mass.
That September, in the first public accusation against Harris, former student David Price sued the priest and the diocese, alleging that Harris molested him repeatedly when he sought counseling after his father's death in 1979. Price, a Santa Ana resident, said he remembered the episodes during a series of therapy sessions years later.
The news stunned a disbelieving Catholic community. Supporters held a rally for Harris. Though the priest did not attend, 350 parents, students and supporters sang "For He's a Jolly Good Fellow" in a park near the high school. Overhead, a plane pulled a banner in support of Harris.
A court later dismissed Price's suit, saying he had waited too long to file it. But the publicity brought forth a third accuser, Mark Curran of Santa Ana. Curran said that when he was 13, he and Harris were watching a Gene Kelly movie at Harris' diocese-provided home in Orange when the priest leaned over and fondled him.
Curran said he decided to go public with his accusation after seeing Harris' attorney on television denouncing the other accusers.
A fourth man, Larry Raheb of Monrovia, said Harris molested him during a spiritual counseling session in 1979. During the session, Raheb, then 20, confided to the priest that he was a homosexual.
Despite the allegations, Harris was a frequent visitor to Santa Margarita. He attended special events and paced the sidelines, in clerical garb, during football games. He officiated at a wedding and delivered a eulogy at a funeral, in violation of the inactive status imposed by the diocese.
This sparked a flurry of correspondence among church officials about how to deal with a man they knew doctors had diagnosed as a sexual deviate, without drawing the wrath of parents and others who remained loyal to Harris.
Msgr. John Urell, an influential figure in the Orange Diocese, wrote Harris at least two letters gently reminding him that he couldn't appear in public in clerical garb. Harris' successor wrote Urell in frustration after an uninvited Harris attended a school fund-raiser in 1997:
"A few of his loyalist parents remain, and I am resolved to accept that I will never affect the minds of the die-hards who never lose a chance to rub his memory in my face," Principal Merritt Hemenway wrote.
Urell replied: "I wonder if he will ever get the message that he is not welcomed at Santa Margarita Catholic High School events?"
From Msgr. Harris to Dr. Harris
Harris' visits to the school become less frequent and eventually stopped altogether. His life was entering a new chapter, the transformation from Msgr. Harris to Dr. Harris.
Harris went back to school, earning a doctorate in education at Pepperdine University.
He had dinner with Steve Hopkins, his Newport Beach developer friend. They chatted about Harris' future. Harris needed a new line of work, and Hopkins suggested that he put together a nonprofit to provide affordable housing.
"A lot of people get involved in nonprofits for the wrong reason," Hopkins said. "But Mike was sincere. He talked the talk and walked the walk. He's the perfect combination of believing in what he does and being able to work in the business community."
In 1996, Harris began the first of his six Caritas nonprofits. Harris' new business involved using bonds backed by local municipalities to buy mobile-home parks. The units were then rented to low-income residents through city affordable-housing programs.
One affordable-housing specialist who helped Harris get started said he was stunned by the high-profile board of directors he quickly assembled. Several board members wrote letters to city officials in Oceanside, Vista and Brea urging support for Harris' venture.
"He fills a room," said the man, who asked to remain anonymous. "I'm not surprised a whole lot of people don't want to believe [the allegations]. . . . We'd go to lunch and everywhere you'd go, there were people who knew him and would come up to him."
Long-Held Secrets Finally Made Public
Around the time Harris was embarking on his career in housing, Ryan DiMaria was working up the will to go public with his story.
In 1991, when DiMaria was a sophomore at Santa Margarita and despondent over a friend's suicide, his parents had asked Harris to counsel the boy and help him cope with his grief.
Ryan said that Harris took him out for dinner and a performance of "The Phantom of the Opera" in Los Angeles before returning to the priest's house, where the boy spent the night. Harris invited him to share his bed, DiMaria said. He said he refused and slept on a couch in another room. The next morning, DiMaria said, Harris repeatedly groped him.
DiMaria said he spent the next six years battling depression and thoughts of suicide until he shared the secret with his parents. DiMaria was the only accuser to bring his case to the district attorney's office, which declined to press charges in what was by then a 6-year-old incident.
So DiMaria filed a civil lawsuit, taking advantage of a new state law that extended the statue of limitations for cases of molestation. He then set out to confront Harris.
In the summer of 1997, a defiant DiMaria said, he and a friend from Santa Margarita drove to see Harris unannounced at the exclusive Lido Isle home of developer William Lyon, where Harris had been staying for months.
"He opened the door and saw us there," said DiMaria, now a law student living in Laguna Niguel. "In classic Michael Harris fashion, he wanted to give me a hug.
"I basically said, 'I trusted you. You manipulated that trust and betrayed that trust.' He just looked down. There was really no more discussing it."
The doctors at St. Luke's Institute in Maryland, the Roman Catholic Church's medical facility for troubled priests in the United States, examined Msgr. Michael A. Harris in February 1994 after he was accused of molesting a former student. Below are excerpts of the doctors' findings:
"Michael reported a family history which had considerable trauma. His mother had been physically and emotionally abused by her own mother, including being beaten and locked in a dark closet."
"He dated some teenage girls but the relationships were 'largely platonic.' He hugged and kissed some girls. When asked if he found the experience sexually stimulating, he said, 'Yes and no . . . not profoundly.' "
"Msgr. Harris said that he continues to experience confusion regarding his sexual orientation. 'At times I feel I am still in sexual adolescence. Confusion, compulsion, unresolved need fulfillment, guilt, fear, anxiety, etc., are still a part of my life in this regard.' "
"His overall . . . profile was typical of someone who may appear charming and tends to make a good first impression. . . . Such people have a tendency to act impulsively and use other people for their own gratification."
"Msgr. Harris needs to choose recovery and integrity over appearances and reputation. This will be a hard choice for him."
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