Dioceses Settles Molestation Lawsuit

By Greg Hardesty, Tiffany Montgomery and Jeff Collins
Orange County Register
August 22, 2001

SANTA ANA, Calif. _ Catholic Church leaders in Orange and Los Angeles counties have settled a lawsuit accusing a once-powerful priest of molestation, agreeing to pay $5.2 million and vowing to crack down on clergymen who prey on youngsters.

A code of conduct, to be enforced by a judge, results from accusations that Monsignor Michael Harris, 56, molested a 17-year-old boy in 1991.

Harris denies wrongdoing and never has been charged with a crime. However, he has agreed to leave the priesthood in the wake of the legal challenge.

"I'm very happy with what we got accomplished," said Ryan DiMaria, now 28, who brought the lawsuit. "I think it will protect a lot of victims in the future."

Harris, through his attorney, called DiMaria's accusations groundless, but declined to be interviewed.

A former pillar of Orange County's Catholic community, Harris raised most of the money to open Santa Margarita Catholic High School in 1987 and was principal through 1994.

The settlement in DiMaria's suit against the Archdiocese of Los Angeles and the Diocese of Orange, recently reached in Orange County Superior Court but still being finalized, calls for a toll-free 800 number and website for reporting molestation, educational pamphlets to be distributed to Catholic churches and schools, and for priests to be required to sign agreements not to molest, among other things.

DiMaria's attorney, Katherine Freberg, said the agreement is unprecedented, but church officials in both counties say they already have many of the policies in place.

"What it (the settlement) really does is take the enforcement and trust out of the church's own institutions, which have failed miserably," said Jeffrey Anderson, a St. Paul, Minn., attorney who has handled about 450 molestation cases against the Catholic Church.

Tod D. Brown, bishop of the Diocese of Orange, professed anguish at the allegations against Harris.

He said the church acted properly in suspending Harris shortly after it received complaints about him.

"Although Michael Harris continues to deny any wrongdoing, the Diocese of Orange has grave doubts about his innocence in these matters," Brown said.

He apologized to DiMaria and others who have said Harris molested them as boys.

"I personally express my profound sorrow for the suffering that (the victims) have described," Brown said.

Insurance paid for $2 million of the $5.2 million settlement, and each diocese kicked in an additional $1.6 million, Brown said.

The Catholic Church has been roundly criticized for failing to protect its flock. In some dioceses, officials told pedophiles to "pray their way" out of their illness.

Some church officials said they could understand why a formal code of conduct would be needed.

"We're all pretty conscious not to engage in any activity with minors without an adult present," said the Rev. Christian Mondor, parochial vicar at St. Simon and Jude Church in Huntington Beach.

"I find it (the formal policies) very demeaning," he added, "but I understand why, with all the scandals that have occurred, priests have to do that."

The accusations against Harris date back to the 1970s, when he became a priest.

DiMaria, a former Santa Margarita High student, alleged in his lawsuit that the dioceses turned their backs on the predatory behavior of Harris, who allegedly targeted young men in need of spiritual counseling.

DiMaria also had sued Harris, and that case was also recently settled. Harris agreed to give up his collar. He said in a written statement issued by his attorney he had done nothing wrong but couldn't afford to defend himself.

"For over 25 years, Monsignor Harris has devoted his life to working with high school students," the statement from Harris' lawyer, Mike Trotter, said.

Trotter called Harris a "scapegoat."

Harris lives in Oceanside, Calif., and has been on inactive leave from the church since 1994. He plans to focus on his business of managing mobile-home parks for low-income families, according to Trotter.

Orange County Judge James Gray, who oversaw the settlement, said it was important to go beyond a monetary award.

"It seems to me there was a real opportunity to do something positive, and we tried to focus on that," Gray said. "I'm optimistic about this. We had highly placed officials in the church (involved), and they took it very seriously."

Judge Gray said he would enforce the conduct code if either side comes to him alleging non-compliance _ just as he does in other types of settlements.

In addition to DiMaria, David A. Price, Vincent Colice and Mark Curran have accused Harris of molesting them when he was principal of Mater Dei High School in Santa Ana in the 1970s and '80s.

Price filed a civil lawsuit against Harris and the two dioceses in 1994, but he dropped it after a judge dismissed the dioceses from the case.

Researchers have said that about 2 percent of Catholic clergy are pedophiles and 4 percent have an attraction to adolescent boys. Those percentages were described as about equal to those found in the general public.

Anderson said he has seen improvement in the church's handling of molestation charges, but he believes there still is a long way to go.

"The whole dimension of denial runs so deep," Anderson said. "It takes dramatic external pressure to purge an institution of that. And you don't do it in one case _ or in one year. I haven't even seen it done in one decade."

Even after the settlement announcement, some Harris supporters continued to back him.

"Personally, I don't believe it (molestation) happened," said Scott Cody, who graduated from Santa Margarita High in 1995.

Cody described Harris as a mentor and close friend who would sponsor "movie nights" at his home to keep students out of trouble _ not lure them into it.

"I feel bad," said Cody, 28, of Mission Viejo. "Part of me _ about 1 percent _ says that if this happened, I feel sorry for (DiMaria). The other 99 percent says I feel sorry that Monsignor Harris has to go through all this, because he's done so many wonderful things for so many people."

Officials at Santa Margarita High School declined to comment.

Harris' was one of several Orange County cases involving religious figures accused of molestation. While a parish priest at St. Bonaventure Catholic Church, Andrew Christian Andersen had sex with boys and was given probation and sent to a treatment center. After molesting another, he was sent to prison.

John Lenihan molested a girl at St. Norbert Catholic Church in Orange. The Orange Diocese settled out of court with the victim's family. Lenihan now is parish priest at St. Edward Church in Dana Point, Calif.


Any original material on these pages is copyright © 2004. Reproduce freely with attribution.