Harlem Monsignor Accused of Abusing Students Resigns

By Paul Vitello
New York Times
September 16, 2010

[Letter From Archbishop Timothy M. Dolan to St. Charles Borromeo Parishioners (Set. 2, 2010)]

[Letter From Msgr. Wallace A. Harris to Parishioners at St. Charles Borromeo (Aug. 28, 2010)]

A prominent Harlem priest who helped arrange the New York visit of Pope Benedict XVI in 2008 has resigned, two years after he was suspended on charges of sexually abusing high school students he taught in the 1980s.

The priest, Msgr. Wallace A. Harris, 63, remains an ordained priest in the eyes of the church, but he "will never again publicly function or present himself as a priest," Archbishop Timothy M. Dolan wrote two weeks ago in a letter to the parishioners of St. Charles Borromeo Church, on West 141st Street, where Monsignor Harris was pastor from 1989 until his suspension.

Whether he will be formally removed from the priesthood — laicized, in church parlance — is a separate issue yet to be decided by the Vatican's internal affairs office, known as the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.

The Archdiocese of New York said it would refer the monsignor's case to that office, a step that usually means church officials consider the case for removal a strong one. The archdiocese's spokesman, Joseph Zwilling, said he could not disclose details of Monsignor Harris's case until the Vatican investigation was completed.

Once widely considered a candidate for appointment as a bishop, Monsignor Harris was the highest-ranking black cleric in the archdiocese. He gave the invocation at Gov. David A. Paterson's swearing-in ceremony in 2008, and organized the special Mass celebrated by the pope at Yankee Stadium in April of that year.

He was still being praised for that job in July, when a man told archdiocesan officials that the monsignor had sexually molested him while the man was a young teenager enrolled at Cathedral Preparatory High School and College, in Manhattan.

Church officials referred the claim to the Manhattan district attorney's office, in compliance with reforms adopted by Roman Catholic bishops in 2002 in the wake of a widespread scandal over prior cover-ups of abuse.

The district attorney's investigation turned up a second accuser, and the archdiocese suspended Monsignor Harris in August 2008. After news reports on the claims and the suspension, eight more former students went to prosecutors, claiming that the monsignor had abused them.

Because of statutes of limitations, no criminal charges or civil lawsuits have been filed.

Parishioners at St. Charles Borromeo asked Archbishop Dolan for an update on the monsignor's status when he visited in summer 2009, said Mr. Zwilling, the archdiocesan spokesman. Mr. Zwilling said the archbishop's letter, his first subsequent communication with the parish, was prompted by Monsignor Harris's decision late last month to resign. "You asked if monsignor would ever return as your pastor," the archbishop wrote to parishioners a week after receiving the resignation. "The answer is, no."

Neither the resignation nor the archbishop's letter was disclosed to the news media by the archdiocese. Parish members notified the advocacy group Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests, which disclosed the communications.

David Clohessy, president of the abuse victims' group, said the reticence of the archdiocese indicated that "not much has really changed in the way the hierarchy thinks about predatory priests."

The words "sexual abuse" are not in Archbishop Dolan's letter to the congregation, Mr. Clohessy said. "To me," he said, "that says that at the end of a long, secretive process, the archbishop is still not willing to plainly speak the truth. Which allows people to believe whatever they like."

Efforts to reach Monsignor Harris for comment were unsuccessful; the archdiocese would not disclose his whereabouts.

Pamela Harris, a New York lawyer and longtime friend of the monsignor, said she regretted that he never took the opportunity to publicly defend himself. "It just seems so sad," she said. "I still don't believe he did these things."

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