Popular Priest Accused of Molesting Students
Lawsuit: Former Mater Dei Principal Denies Any Wrongdoing

By Jonathan Volzke and Cheryl Downey
Orange County Register (California)
October 17, 1994

Monsignor Michael Harris, former principal at Orange County's top Catholic high schools, has been accused of sexually molesting two students whose parents had asked him to counsel their sons.

The molestations allegedly occurred 15 years ago while Harris was principal of Mater Dei High School in Santa Ana. Harris abruptly resigned as founding principal of Santa Margarita High School earlier this year.

One alleged victim, David Price, now 29, filed suit last month seeking damages from Harris and Catholic Church officials for alleged sexual molestations from 1979 through 1983.

Harris and his attorney repeatedly have denied any wrongdoing.

Leonora Colice, the mother of another alleged victim, brought similar allegations to the diocese after her son's death from AIDS last year and believes that her complaint prompted Harris' resignation weeks later. She also has what she believes is Harris' written apology for the abuse.

"My whole life has been screwed up because of this," said Price, who claims he recalled the molestations only last year in counseling. "I personally believe he should be put behind bars.

It's a criminal act, and he should be treated as a criminal. "

Although not the first Orange County priest to be accused of sexual molestation, Harris is one of the best-known. Harris was principal of Mater Dei High School for nine years and led fund raising for Santa Margarita High School, which opened in 1987 with much fanfare. He was its principal until he resigned in January.

Shortly after Harris' resignation, the Diocese of Orange announced that he had been accused of "sexual improprieties" that did not involve physical contact. Harris denied the allegations.

But Harris' role as a priest was ultimately ended, his attorney said Sunday. Harris now is a graduate student at Pepperdine University.

"Anybody can make these allegations," said John Barnett, a prominent Santa Ana criminal attorney representing Harris. "He is literally the most revered clergyman in Southern California. To hold up two very sick and disturbed students out of tens of thousands is just wrong. "

Both young men told similar stories of sexual molestations that occurred after parents asked Harris to counsel the students. In both cases, the alleged molestations continued for several years while they attended Mater Dei.

David Price said his stepmother asked Harris to counsel him when he was a Mater Dei freshman. The sudden death of Price's father six weeks after remarrying left the stepmother, a quadraplegic, with 14 stepchildren.

During the first counseling session in Harris' Mater Dei office, the priest fondled him, Price charged. Soon, the priest was forcing Price to perform sex acts, both in his school office and his home in Orange, Price said.

"He said it was our secret and I was to tell no one," said Price, an altar boy and accomplished choir singer who was a practicing Catholic until last year.

Price didn't tell. The alleged molestations continued throughout all four years of high school, he said. On the day his stepmother died, Price, 16, went to Harris mourning the death of another parent and was molested instead of comforted, he said.

It wasn't until counseling last year that he recalled the incidents and his therapist reported them as child abuse, he said.

In June, he took his story to Diocese of Orange officials, who he said believed him. He is now on disability and in twice-a-week therapy.

Diocesan spokesman Monsignor Lawrence Baird did not return several telephone calls to his home Sunday.

Colice, of Stanton, said she discovered long after the fact that her son, Vincent, had been repeatedly molested by Harris, a trusted family friend. While her son was suffering from AIDS several years ago, Leonora Colice suggested that he call Harris for counseling.

"He became extremely distraught and angry. He told me he had been molested by Father Harris and never wanted to see him again," Colice said. "He swore me to secrecy. "

Shortly before his death at age 32 in November, Vincent Colice opened up about the alleged abuse. He said it began in 1977 when his mother asked Harris to counsel her son because he had been molested by a lay church employee, Leonora Colice said.

Harris counseled the teen-ager and got him admitted to Mater Dei as a junior, she said. Her son said Harris sexually abused him throughout 1979, when he graduated.

Days after her son's death, Colice wrote to Harris.

"Vince had died," she said Sunday. "I needed to tell him I knew about this. " Harris wrote back, a letter she considers an admission of guilt.

"Through counseling and other resources, I have endeavored to work through many things. It may not be any consolation, but I am very sorry," Harris wrote in his response.

Colice took the letter and her story to diocesan officials.

Harris resigned as Santa Margarita High principal within weeks, and she believes the sexual improprieties cited in an announcement were her son's charges.

Both Leonora Colice and David Price say they are concerned about possible other victims and want to ensure that Harris, an educator for 20 years, does not work with children or youths again.

"I know in my heart Vince was not the first. He was not the last," Colice said. "If there are victims out there who suffered what Vince and David suffered for years, they can realize there is help out there. "

Irvine attorney Theodore S. Wentworth, who is representing Price, said the church is wrong for failing to curtail priests who step out of line.

"There's nothing wrong with the Catholic Church having a dark side," Wentworth said. "But certainly for the Catholic church to deny the problem makes the size and depth of the problem greater, so much so that it becomes a human-rights issue. "

Scott King, 26, who graduated from Mater Dei in 1986, said he is a close friend of Harris' and has never seen even a hint of impropriety. He said he had been to Harris' home several times and that Harris joined King and some other Mater Dei graduates for a trip to Hawaii.

"He would hug a lot of the kids. There was physical contact," King said. "But there's a very sharp line of what is appropriate and what is not, and he never even came close to crossing that line. "


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