Fresno bishop’s letter to parishioners about former priest Craig Harrison

Church Militant [Ferndale MI]

September 6, 2021

By Bishop Joseph V. Brennan, D.D.

[For PDF of letter as it appeared on on 9/6/2021, click here.]

Diocese of Fresno
Pastoral Center
1550 North Fresno Street
Fresno, California 93703-3788
TELEPHONE (559) 488-7400

Dear brothers and sisters,

This letter comes to you with a lot of emotions that range from sorrow to hope and everything else in between. I have felt them deeply and continue to do so. I can well imagine that you have too.  It is precisely because of that that I am doing my best to write these words to you in a spirit of hope.

Since April of 2019 we have been on quite a journey, to put it mildly. Undoubtedly, it is a journey that has been neither wanted nor planned by any of us. Over these two years I have heard from many of you, sharing with me your anger, disappointment, frustrations, confusion; and from others, words of prayerful support and encouragement. I do not seek approval, nor do I avoid disappointing others. The whole spectrum of emotions is to be expected in all our lives but, again, I know that it has not been easy for you there at St. Francis Church. Please know that I do my level best to make decisions without any intent, conscious or otherwise, to either please or upset people. Rather, I try to make decisions based upon what I believe is best for the flock entrusted to me, come what may, including the flock in Bakersfield.

You have heard many voices these last few years, from your local media, Facebook messages, news conferences and others; people talking about and sharing what they think they know or what they have heard others say. The Diocese of Fresno has consistently had a ‘no comment’ response through all of this. If you found that frustrating, then just remember that I share that frustration with you. However, there were and remain reasons for that ‘no comment’ stance. Believe it or not, the primary reasons included efforts to respect the confidentiality and privacy of Craig Harrison and to salvage – if at all possible – the unique relationship that ought to exist between any bishop and his priest. That relationship and this whole situation were very negatively impacted by active litigation brought against the Diocese by Craig Harrison himself. That, in and of itself, made communication with Mr. Harrison and public comments of any kind legally inadvisable and, for all intents and purposes, essentially impossible for a very long time. The relationship between a Bishop and his priest is private and even sacred . When that relationship is damaged or compromised in any way, it is spiritually dangerous for both the bishop and the priest and, worst of all, it always hurts you, the flock.

As noted above, there are certainly a number of things that I simply cannot share with you. However, there are some things that I can share. It might be helpful for you to know that the Diocese of Fresno did receive allegations of misconduct involving 7 minors against Craig Harrison. The Diocese began an internal investigation that could only be completed once all the law enforcement agencies involved concluded their investigations. The Diocesan Review Board reviewed all available information regarding each allegation and arrived at the opinion that the allegations were credible. This led to the opening of a canonical case with the Holy See seeking penal action. The Holy See then authorized a judicial Tribunal to hear the matter. The Tribunal was scheduled to convene within the same week that the Diocese was notified that Mr. Harrison had voluntarily petitioned Rome to be dispensed from the clerical state. The process is also known as laicization, and it was granted to Craig Harrison by Pope Francis on March 18th of this year. With laicization or dispensation from the clerical state, several conditions were noted that he is obliged to follow. Let me quote just two of those conditions from the ‘Rescript’, that is, the official document from Rome granting the laicization; quotes that you should be aware of, and that Mr. Harrison needs to bear in mind:

“The dispensed priest forfeits all rights, honors, and duties proper to the clerical state; he is also no longer bound to the obligations associated with the clerical state.”

“He is excluded from exercising the sacred ministry except as provided for by canons 976 and 986 of the Code of Canon Law.  Hence, he is not allowed to give a homily, nor is he able to carry out any directive function in the area of pastoral care, nor may he exercise the office of parochial administrator.”

References to himself as “Father Harrison” or “Monsignor Harrison” are forbidden to him and ought to be discouraged from use by the faithful. Mr. Harrison has complied regarding this issue as of late. However, a number of his supporters continue to refer to him as “Msgr. Harrison” in writing, in public, and in signage. Doing so only adds to the confusion, division, and dissent in all this.

The second quote referenced above is perhaps the more applicable, essentially saying that the only thing that Craig Harrison can do even remotely approaching authorized ministry is to hear someone’s confession in the event of that person’s immediate danger of death. That is precisely what canons 976 and 986 refer to. The operative phrase is that he is not allowed to exercise, “… any directive function in the area of pastoral care.” That would include, but is not limited to his prohibition from giving homilies, presiding over Vigils for the Deceased, publicly guiding the faithful in a Rosary, conducting graveside services or publicly blessing a Marriage just to name a few clear examples. While there are no canons {Church law) governing eulogies, especially since they are not part of the Roman Catholic funeral Rites and are not provided for in the current Roman Missal, I reserve the right to refuse that basically non­ Catholic funeral element to anyone. In fact, Mr. Harrison would have to secure written permission from me to offer any eulogy or funeral reflection in any Catholic Church, parish facility or on any diocesan property.

I know that Mr. Harrison has presented himself as a life coach and as someone who offers counselling. I do not begrudge anyone’s effort to make a living. I must say, however, that I would like to know what advanced degrees or certificates he has worked for and received so as to qualify for offering such services. In truth, that is really none of my business. What is my business and what is much more problematic is that he has also publicly indicated that he is offering spiritual counselling and spiritual direction. Well, ‘spiritual direction’ is a specific ministry in the Church reserved to priests in active ministry and lay people who have been both properly prepared and approved by their local bishop to offer such ministry.

I could go on, but I think I have said what I needed to say for now. If you are still listening or still reading this letter, then you are very kind indeed and I am most grateful. This is a task that is a little too lengthy and much too difficult, especially for all of you at St. Francis Church.

They say that time heals all wounds and deep down inside I believe that. This is going to take some time, though, and we all entrust this to God’s hands and God’s timing. In the meantime, I must do my best to live out the commitment I made when I was installed as the Bishop of the Diocese of Fresno and entrusted with the care of souls here in the Central Valley on May 2, 2019. On that day I pledged to be a shepherd to the people of this Diocese. I am sinful, I am weak, and I often fail, but, by God, I am going to trust in Him, rejoice in hope and do my best to do a better job of leading you, loving you, guiding you and protecting you.

Keep me in your good prayer. You are always in mine.

In Christ,

Most Reverend Joseph V. Brennan, D.D.
Bishop, Diocese of Fresno