Prominent Black NY Monsignor Accused of Sexual Abuse

By Kilian Melloy
EDGE Contributor

August 12, 2008

The pastor of a Roman Catholic church known as Harlemís Cathedral has been suspended from his duties following accusations that he sexually molested two boys in their early teens two decades ago.

The New York Times reported on Aug. 5 that Msgr. Wallace Harris, a prominent African-American priest who offered a prayer at the inauguration of New York Governor David Paterson, had been suspended from his pastoral duties at Harlemís Church of St. Charles Borromeo.

The article said that the churchís congregation learned of the suspension during church services on Aug. 3.

The New York Times piece cited unnamed individuals said to be knowledgeable about the investigation launched by the district attorney. According to those individuals, Harris had been accused by two men, who made sworn statements that he had inappropriately touched them during his time as an instructor at Manhattanís Cathedral Preparatory High School and College.

A follow-up article in the Times, published Aug. 9, reported that Harris, whose prospects had seemed wide open for a posting as bishop or cardinal, was the most highly-placed African-American in the New York archdiocese, but he never neglected to stand up on behalf of the neglected.

Harris also testified before church officials in 2002, as the pedophile priest scandal was in full swing, cautioning that some, perhaps many, of the priests caught up in the outrage and the accusations had been falsely named as abusers.

Now those words of counsel seem to resound, even though Harris has denied the charges and the DAís office has said the statute of limitations has long since passed for the alleged offense.

Even if he is determined to be innocent, a review by the archdiocese could take years; the Times cited the case of one accused priest for whom the process, so far, has taken six long years.

For others in the clerical community, the charges leveled against Harris--who is well-respected and well-liked--are devastating.

The Times article quoted a friend of Harris, former priest Paul Dinter, as saying, "This is a tragedy that cuts across the lines."

Added Dinter of Harris, "We all thought he was overdue to become a bishop."

Another priest declined to speak with the Times, other than to say, "Itís too much. I canít."

Harris was seen as a great supporter of his fellow clerics, willing to stand up to anyone, including the New York archdioceseís Cardinal Egan; according to one former priest and friend of Harris, Ray LaManna, "A lot of guys felt they got no support from the cardinal, and he was sort of a lifeline."

One accuser of another cleric recalled Harris from the Msgr.ís days as an instructor at Cathedral Preparatory High School and College, which, when it was still open and operating, was a school for young Catholic students thinking about a career in the priesthood.

Said Daniel Donohue of Harris, "He was smart, challenging, gave great sermons, but ytu didnít want to be on his bad ide."

Donohue was a student at Cathedral Preparatory in the 1980s, and later accused the schoolís rector, Msgr. Kavanaugh, of sexually abusing him.

Donohue had no such accusations in the New York Times article, saying, "It was nice to be liked by Wally Harris."

While Donohue said that sometimes relationships between single Catholic priests serving as instructors and the boys attending the school as students could become quite close, sometimes inappropriately so, he had not heard anything about Harris behaving inappropriately, the Time story said.

According to a lawyer who heard Harris testify about the pedophile priest crisis in 2002, Harris recognized that there were sexual predators among the clergy, but he also saw that the hysteria surrounding the issue could be damaging to those who had done nothing wrong.

Harris saw it as a problem, "how too many innocent people, innocent priests, were getting swept up in these accusations," the lawyer, Pamela Hayes, said in the article.

The panel on which Hayes sat later created guidelines for dealing with accusations that ironically have now come into effect and led to Harrisí removal from his pastoral responsibilities.

Said Hayes, who is herself a friend of Harris, "I am beyond words trying to describe how people feel about this."

Added Hayes, referring to Harrisí 2002 words of warning, "Itís always different when you know somebody, but this just brings home for me what he was saying in his testimony-how sometimes innocent people do get swept up."

Said Hayes, "I just hope itís not true," the Times reported.

The article said that Harris did not respond to messages and has not made a statement, though he has denied the accusations.


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