Priest Faces Misconduct Allegations
The Priest, Involved in a Web Site Scandal in 2000, Faces Removal for Allegedly Being Nude with Youths at a Camp 20 Years Ago
By John Richardson
Portland Press Herald (Maine)
September 4, 2003
A Roman Catholic priest who led a parish in Rangeley until last month could be expelled, following a church investigation into reports that he was seen nude while swimming, boating and sitting in a hot tub with youths at a private camp 20 years ago.
The Rev. John Harris is the fourth Maine priest who was active in a parish to publicly face misconduct allegations since the sexual abuse scandal hit the Catholic Church last year.
The Portland diocese said on Wednesday that Harris could ultimately be removed from the priesthood. It plans to send representatives to Harris' former parish this weekend to explain the announcement and offer support to parishioners.
Harris has not been accused of having sexual contact with minors, according to the diocese. But the reported incidents clearly violate the church's standards of ethics and behavior and its new policies to prevent sexual abuse and exploitation, a spokeswoman said.
Harris began a voluntary leave from the priesthood in late August, after telling his parishioners that he was going to school to study science. He could not be reached on Wednesday for comment.
Harris, 48, is from Westbrook and began his clerical career at Portland's Sacred Heart parish in 1984.
The Roman Catholic Church in the United States adopted new standards and disciplinary procedures last year after revelations across the country that numerous priests had sexually molested boys and girls without facing punishment, and that some priests continued the behavior as church leaders transferred them from parish to parish.
Two Maine priests were removed from their Aroostook County parishes in early 2002 because they admitted having sexual relationships with teenage parishioners in the 1970s. That spring, a third priest was removed from his Ellsworth parish after an allegation that he sexually abused a minor. Several other retired or inactive priests in Maine have since been ordered not to present themselves as clergymen because of credible allegations of past sexual misconduct.
Harris' conduct drew the attention of church officials two years before the Boston trial of defrocked priest John Geoghan led to the national scandal.
Harris was removed from his previous parish, in Sabattus, in early 2000 because of his role as creator and manager of a Web site for gay clerics that contained sexual content. At the time, defenders argued that he was being singled out because of an anti-gay sentiment in the church. Church officials said the discipline was due to the Web site's sexually provocative and pornographic content.
Harris went through counseling for several months. That June, he was reinstated and assigned to Our Lady of the Lakes in Oquossoc, a village in the town of Rangeley.
Sometime after Harris was reinstated, a person outside the church reported the incidents at a private youth camp in Waterford in the 1980s, said Sue Bernard, spokeswoman for the diocese. The camp, which no longer exists, was not affiliated with the church, she said.
Bernard said someone who was an adult at the camp came forward and reported having seen Harris and campers in the nude. There also was an instance in which Harris was photographed with a minor who was nude, Bernard said.
Bernard said church officials have not talked to any of the people who were campers when the alleged incidents occurred, and they do not have the photo. "We have not been able to find a minor who says they were involved," Bernard said.
But, she said, the diocesan investigator and a review panel looked into Harris' past involvement in the Web site and the allegations of misconduct at the camp, and determined there was enough evidence to lead to disciplinary action. Wednesday's announcement was made as soon as the investigation was completed, she said.
Because Harris began a voluntary leave just before the investigation was concluded, he had already agreed not to exercise any priestly duties, Bernard said. The voluntary leave, which was approved by Bishop Joseph Gerry, can last as long as a year.
Harris could ask to be laicized - removed from the priesthood - before the end of his leave. If he seeks to return as a parish priest, the diocese will seek punishment and potential laicization through a church trial process, she said. The other Maine priests removed from their ministry face the same process, she said.
The reports about Harris' conduct at the camp were forwarded to Maine's attorney general last year, along with all other allegations of sexual misconduct in the files of the diocese. Assistant Attorney General Leanne Robbin would not say whether the state investigated Harris. Even if criminal, any incidents that took place 20 years ago could not be prosecuted because of the statute of limitations.
Parishioners in the Rangeley area had no idea that Harris was under investigation, said Anthony Jannace Jr., parish council president at Our Lady of the Lakes.
Jannace said Harris announced after Mass on Aug. 10 that he would start a leave of absence at the end of August. "He just read a letter that he was going to go back to school."
Parishioners were shocked and saddened that he was leaving, he said. They had known about the Web site and about Harris' removal from the Sabattus parish. But Harris became widely liked and respected in Rangeley and neighboring parishes where he served.
"I think he proved himself up here," Jannace said. "He's a fun guy. He's a gentleman and a terrific priest."
He was a captivating preacher and an energetic servant, even rewiring the church himself, Jannace said.
More than 100 people filled a rented hall for a going-away party on Aug. 22, he said. "People came up and hugged him and hated to see him go, and you could see some tears flow."
Jannace was stunned by Wednesday's announcement and didn't know how people would react. "It's going to be a shock for everybody, you know."
Some other Maine Catholics were less surprised by the potential disciplinary action facing Harris.
Paul Kendrick, a founder of Maine's Voice of the Faithful chapter, said he and others had been urging the diocese to investigate Harris for the past year. They argued that he should be removed from the ministry because his Web site, St. Sebastian's Angels, had posted a photo of another priest with a 12-year-old boy over a caption that read, "this is not my current lover."
"The bishop had stated he had made a decision on this matter in 2000 and that was the end of it," Kendrick said.
Kendrick had not heard about the incidents at the summer camp, but questioned why the diocese did not uncover the allegations two years ago. He also questioned why Harris was allowed to take a voluntary leave rather than be removed immediately by the diocese.
"This is another example of Bishop Gerry's negligence and support of the pal system that exists in this diocese," he said.
Bernard said the investigation was not complete until after Harris requested his leave and announced it to parishioners.
The review panel met only last week to review the evidence, and the investigation was formally completed on Wednesday, she said.
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