Welcome to Bakersfield Observed. Our mission is to celebrate life in Kern County by focusing on newsmakers and events and the local characters who make this community such a special place. The views expressed here are strictly my own and do not represent any other person or organization.
An essay expressing my views ...
When the history of the Father Craig case is written, we may look back to a single press release from the Fresno County District Attorney's Office that would change everything.
And yet, no charges would be filed because of the statute of limitations. But there it was, laid out for all the world to see: investigators say there's reason to believe some of the accusations against Father Craig.
It was the journalistic equivalent of a bombshell, triggering an immediate, angry response from Harrison defense attorney Kyle Humphrey in which vowed to sue the Diocese of Fresno, cast doubt on the motives of the lead DA investigator, dismissed it all as a response to the "me too" movement and denounced some of the accusers as "drunks" and people who "chase women" and therefore cannot be believed.
But at the end of the day, that single-page press release from Fresno may be credited with marking the end to the golden era of Craig Harrison as the popular, rock star priest from St. Francis Parish in Bakersfield, an incredible, almost surreal turn of events in a story that has gripped Harrison's hometown and led to deep divisions in the community.
Never again will Harrison enjoy the lofty status of the beloved local priest who would turn heads by simply walking into Uricchio's or Luigi's, moving methodically down the aisles shaking hands,
That era ended when Fresno County became the first investigative agency to concede that some of the men who have accused Harrison of sexual impropriety could be telling the truth, deflating or seriously setting back the aggressive and well funded Harrison defense strategy of slapping defamation lawsuits on critics, denouncing the accusers as drunks and liars and shrewdly trying to convince the public that the Diocese had treated him unfairly. He's not to blame, the argument went, it's the Diocese that is guilty of treating our Father Craig like a criminal. How dare they listen to these men who are only out for money? How dare anyone cast aversions on "our Father Craig."
Clearly, this case is far from over but the Fresno County decision may have marked the high water mark of Harrison's defense; never before had any police or law enforcement agency given credence to the accusations of now adult men who were just children when they alleged Father Craig had preyed on them, much less going so far to describe them as "credible" while explaining that it is common in cases of sexual abuse for alleged victims to wait years to come forward.
WHERE DO WE GO FROM HERE? Defense attorney Kyle Humphrey told KERO TV that he is preparing a lawsuit against the Diocese of Fresno and Diocese spokesperson Teresa Dominguez, a tacit admission that the quest to get Harrison returned to the pulpit is not realistic. Rather than returning him to his job, the defense now seems intent on simply trying to clear his name. After all, suing the Catholic Church hardly looks like a ploy to convince the Bishop to return Father Craig to his job. And as he has done before, Humphrey denounced the accusers, called one a "drunk," said the Diocese was reacting to the "me too" movement and alleged - with no evidence - that some of the accusers came forward because they "see money." He further complained that the Fresno investigators had never interviewed Harrison and he described the investigation as "totally unprofessional." So the lawsuit against the church will go forward, and that will mean a lengthy, costly trial that could go on for years, testing the patience of even Father Craig's most loyal followers.
WHAT IS THE NEXT STEP? Now that the Firebaugh investigation is over, it will be up to Bishop Joseph Brennan to decide Harrison's fate. That could come rather quickly, or it could take years. No one knows when Brennan will act, but it would be hard to see Brennan bringing Harrison back now that Harrison will be suing the Diocese and his attorneys have spared no expense in blaming the Diocese for his troubles. It is also unknown how a lawsuit against the Diocese may complicate - or delay - the Bishop's decision to remove Harrison.
DEFROCKING: If Harrison is kicked out of the church, one of the harshest punishment's possible in canon law, he will have been subjected to a process called laicization, meaning the removal of a bishop, priest or decon from the status of being a member of the clergy. It is also called defrocking, where a cleric is forbidden to wear clerical garb and is stripped of all duties as a priest. It is not a criminal proceeding and Harrison will be free to start a new life, perhaps as a counselor, a life coach, or another vocation of his choosing.
THE COMMUNITY REACTION: Meanwhile, the community reaction to the Fresno County press release has been predictable: Harrison's die hard supporters were not moved by the Fresno County report, and they took their fury out on anyone who dared criticize the monsignor. They reserved special invective for the Diocese of Fresno, and well heeled Catholics continued to defend him while writing checks to his defense fund. At St. Francis it is particularly ugly: some parishioners have been withholding monetary support and some are refusing to attend the upcoming Kern Catholic Breakfast where Bishop Brennan will speak. "The place will be empty," a supporter told me. "No one is buying tables this year." More remarkable, a few members of the parish have left the church and the faith itself. One prominent couple, who became Catholics late in life because of their devotion to Harrison, have left to join an evangelical church. Others are simply staying at home.
GOING FORWARD: There is no doubt that Father Craig did a world of good while serving at St. Francis. He has personally counseled thousands, provided grief counseling to so many in time of need and raised millions of dollars for the church and worthy causes. But that was before we learned there were men - first one, then two and now as many as five - who said they had a different experience with Father Craig, ugly dark episodes that no one felt possible. Those accusations are impossible to prove and there are those who still believe Harrison will be returned to the pulpit and life will resume as it left off before last April. It is either that, or the memory of Monsignor Craig Harrison as the "rock star" priest will fade from view, a historical footnote of a time in Bakersfield that no one thought would ever end.