Californian exclusive: Suspended priest Craig Harrison, back from self-exile, formulates his defense
By Robert Price
June 10, 2019
|Monsignor Craig Harrison shares a light moment with childhood friends Jana Hardy and Patsy Poeschel on the front porch of his 20th Street home Thursday morning.|
|Monsignor Craig Harrison, seated in the Law Offices of Kyle J. Humphrey Wednesday afternoon, chats with The Californian's Robert Price.|
|Monsignor Craig Harrison's attorney, Kyle Humphrey, makes a point in his interview with Robert Price last Wednesday afternoon.|
|Lighting of the candles during an April prayer vigil at St. Francis for Monsignor Craig Harrison.|
|Monsignor Craig Harrison, right, with Roy Keenan, one of his seven adoptive sons.|
|Brother Justin Gilligan, a Catholic monk associated with the Order of St. Benedict, and raised in Bakersfield, claims Monsignor Craig Harrison made sexual advances toward him several times.|
"Welcome to the bat cave," Monsignor Craig Harrison's attorney announced. "Look up here."
Three large, brown sheets of easel paper were taped to the wall of the small, bare office, furnished only with a simple desk and two facing, upright chairs. Harrison, wearing a crisply ironed short-sleeve shirt, slid into the chair facing his lawyer. He looked to be 10 pounds lighter than the Father Craig his parishioners would remember.
Kyle Humphrey gestured toward the wall, where the easel paper had been arranged into one giant, blue-felt-tip scrawl of numbered names and dates. Blue lines connected some of the names to other names and some of the dates to other dates.
This was more war room than bat cave. This was the bunker, just across the hall from Humphrey's cluttered office, where, for weeks now, he has been formulating a defense for his most celebrated client, a popular priest suspended from his clerical duties while investigators look into allegations of sexual impropriety.
"Now look," Humphrey said again, and the lawyerly lecture began.
Humphrey has looked at hundreds of cases, both as a prosecutor and, for most of the past 30 years, a defense lawyer, but none have been anything like this: a trial, of sorts, with no reliably traveled path to exoneration.
Harrison, a gregarious, highly visible monsignor, was suspended April 24 by the Roman Catholic Diocese of Fresno, which announced it was revisiting accusations that Harrison had inappropriately touched a teenager while working at a Catholic church in Firebaugh in the 1990s. A second man contacted the diocese a few days later, also alleging "inappropriate behavior."
Harrison was still recovering from an exhausting succession of Masses and other Easter weekend events when, that Tuesday night, he received a call from the diocese requesting his presence in Fresno the next morning.
"He just said, 'I need to talk to you,'" Harrison said of his phone conversation with Bishop Armando Ochoa. "'Can you come down?' I said, 'I have a funeral (to officiate).' And he says, 'Can you get out of it?'"
Harrison drove to Fresno the next morning with his parish administrator, and Ochoa laid out the accusation. He told Harrison he would have to clear his calendar of church-related duties, refrain from offering Mass and stop wearing his clerical collar. And he told Harrison he would need an attorney.
"I felt like, at that moment, my life just stopped," Harrison said.
Harrison took Ochoa's advice and called an attorney — Humphrey, who is not merely a battle-tested lawyer but a parishioner and decadeslong friend.
"Kyle said, 'Because of who you are, and the town, and the media, I suggest you leave,'" Harrison said. "So I went to the coast and I stayed with two friends. And then I waited and waited (30 days) until Kyle said, 'It's time to come home.' And I was very scared. I had not seen the news or read the newspaper. And Kyle would only fill me in on what he thought I needed to know."
And so with great trepidation Harrison drove home, announcing his arrival to the neighbors by scraping bottom on his steep driveway, as he always did, every morning and every night, coming and going. They would know that noise.
"I'm an anxious person. I'm a nervous person. I'm a worrier. I was like, 'How do I tell my kids and grandkids? What about them and their lives? And what about my church? And what about all my commitments?'"
He felt shame and responsibility for the pain he thought he had caused his children, his grandchildren and his parish.
"I felt like I had to let all these people down, just being removed like I was. And I came home, and it was unbelievable."
Neighbors spotted him on the sidewalk outside his home, taking his dog for its morning constitutional, and embraced him. Another neighbor, a woman he'd grown up with, did the same. A friend driving down Harrison's street saw him, stopped his car, ran over and greeted him.
"They were hugging me and crying and saying, 'We're just glad you're home.' That I broke a lot of my fears."
Danielle Humphrey, the attorney's daughter, had just passed the state bar and now she was to be sworn in. "She wanted me to go to her ceremony, but I was like, ‘Oh, my God, I'm not going out in public, into the courthouse.' I'm used to being a priest. I'm used to being dressed as a priest. But (Humphrey's) girls have been a big part of my life forever. So I go, 'OK, I'm gonna go.'
"I was a nervous wreck but I walked in the courthouse, and there's the sheriff's deputies at work (guarding the entrance) and they're like, 'Hey, Father Craig, welcome home.' Attorneys, judges — everyone just came out, like, 'Welcome home,' and I felt so good."
Once the ceremony ended, Harrison, grateful things had gone so well but emotionally exhausted, looked forward to going home and getting into bed. Danielle Humphrey had other plans.
"She tells me we're going to Mexicali for her party. So instead of turning left toward my house, we're turning right. I'm going! I'm doing my deep breathing, my yoga breathing. I walk into Mexicali and walk through the whole (dining) room and we're in the back (banquet) room. It was unbelievable. People just got up out of their seats and greeted me, said 'Welcome home.' ... And each (new) group (that) came in, they jumped up and ran over to the table to welcome me home. So I'm home."
He is heartbroken, though, that he cannot perform weddings, eulogies or other church-related events for people whose families he's known his entire life.
"You work with brides and grooms and they're so excited," Harrison said. "I am booked for weddings a year in advance. And I have some friends that are really sick that I would be visiting (in his priestly capacity)."
Harrison is frustrated by what he perceives to be abandonment by the diocese. He said as much in a statement released to the media late last month.
"I have come to the realization that this is a battle that I am left to fight without support from the diocese," Harrison wrote May 24. "Over the past month, while the diocese investigated the accusations against me, they never once reached out to me for my side. In fact, neither (former) Bishop Ochoa, (newly installed) Bishop (Joseph V.) Brennan nor any member of the diocese has checked on my state of mind or welfare. I have not been invited to respond or provide evidence to the diocese. Out of respect for the investigation, I have remained silent."
Teresa Dominguez, spokeswoman for the Fresno Diocese, responded by reminding the public that the diocese is in transition, still dealing with Ochoa's May 2 retirement and Brennan's recent arrival. She also noted that Harrison "knows that he can also initiate contact at any time."
If he were to sit down with a diocese representative, Harrison said, he would reiterate the message he wants to share with his parish, with the world.
"I know there's no truth to any of this. I don't know what that's going to mean for my future. ... But when it's over, God willing, God will give me some sense of what he wants me to do in my life. At this stage, I don't know the answer this question."
Humphrey wouldn't share much of his defense strategy, wouldn't talk much about the curious coincidences and inconsistencies he says they have discovered. He showed me the list of names, places and dates in the bat cave only on my promise not to disclose details. The time, he said, is not right, the work incomplete.
But he did offer this backdrop: A "cabal" of religious extremists within the Catholic Church who are rabidly opposed to what they see as the liberalization of the church brought about by the Ecumenical Council known as Vatican II are trying to rid the church of priests they see as products of that liberalization.
"They're homophobes, they are anti-women and anti-children," Humphrey said. "They really don't like what they consider to be a liberal, modern church. They feed on each other. They're almost like Infowars (conspiracy website) types of characters. They band together, and have a sort of power over the church. And they have become allied with groups like SNAP (Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests). ... If you can knock out a priest, get rid of the charismatic aspects of the faith, then maybe you can get back to a time where people wore doilies on their heads and didn't understand what was being said in Latin (during Mass).
"But there's also individual motivations. There are people who see a paycheck at the end," he said.
Harrison also concurs with his son, Roy Keenan (one of the seven for whom he has become legal guardian or adoptive father): Keenan says Harrison's tendency to take on too many "project" teens may have created resentment among those he couldn't fully deliver to safety.
"I've spent my life working with people," Harrison said. "Maybe it didn't dawn on me that there could be people out there that I didn't fulfill their needs. I've had husbands blame me for their divorces, because in counseling something came out. People blame me for their problems. It's common in counseling, teaching, coaching people. But I would never think it would go to this level."
And so he waits. He says Mass for himself, in his own kitchen, sometimes with a neighbor or his sister, but often alone. He reads the stacks of cards and emails he receives daily and, when appropriate, responds as often as possible.
Then he goes to bed, sleeps as best he can, and then wakes up to Groundhog Day.