Parish Supports Priest in Scandal
Parishioners Say They Want the Rev. John Harris to Stay, Despite Learning That He Built a Web Site for Gay Clergy

Associated Press, carried in Portland Press Herald (Maine)
March 18, 2000

He baptized their babies, buried their dead, married young couples and heard their confessions. Now parishioners of the Rev. John E. Harris, who admitted to the diocese that he set up a sexually explicit Web site for gay clergy, are pledging to stand by him.

"I hope that he's treated well by the diocese and I hope we get to keep him," said Our Lady of the Rosary Parish member Lucille Terrio. "I think the whole parish is behind him."

The Roman Catholic Diocese of Portland has sent Harris to an out-of-state program to decide if he wants to remain a priest. The diocese would not elaborate on the program's whereabouts or content, and has not yet decided what to do when Harris, 45, returns.

Harris, who came to the Sabattus church in 1993, warned parishioners at a meeting Wednesday night that the Sun Journal of Lewiston would have a story about his now-defunct Web site, called St. Sebastian's Angels, the following morning.

Members met Thursday night to discuss it.

"It's a shock to me," said parishioner Denis Castonguay. "I feel bad it's come into the public like this. It's another major setback to this parish."

Most pledged to support Harris.

"If the people who knew him best can forgive him, then everyone should," said Kelly Jaeger, who attended Saturday night Mass led by Harris.

"People like his sermons, he helps people connect with God and he makes people better Catholics. Isn't that what matters?"

Harris told Bishop Joseph Gerry about the Web site two months ago, after a conservative Catholic watchdog group, Roman Catholic Faithful of Springfield, Ill., threatened to expose him, diocese spokesman Marc Mutty said. Harris was told to shut down the site.

Harris set up the site to accompany a gay priests' Internet discussion group that contained sexually explicit language, diocese officials said. The site contained photographs of the discussion group members, as well as pictures of naked men and a close-up of a man's genitals.

Another Maine priest, the retired Rev. Antonin Caron of Lewiston, has been barred from performing church functions in public for allegedly participating in the discussion group after the sexually explicit language appeared. The group was originally meant to let priests talk about their struggles with their sexual orientation.

The president of RCF, Stephen Brady, said the diocese's handling of the situation was "offensive."

"To send him off somewhere to reflect on his priesthood is an insult," Brady said. "It's a way for the diocese and bishop to get out of the corner they're in."

Mutty said Harris' actions were an embarrassment to the church and "inconsistent with the priesthood," but also said the church is quick to forgive when people make mistakes.

Some did not care.

"What he preaches is from a book. What he interprets is as a man. It's up to me to make my own decisions," church member Dan Dion said.

Brady said that Harris and Caron are less to blame than their superiors. He said the fact they turned to the Internet for help with emotional conflicts showed incompetence among their leadership.

"The issue is, who educated these priests and who continued to ignore these trouble signs?" he said. "You don't go from holiness to filth overnight without someone seeing it."


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