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BAKERSFIELD, Calif. (ChurchMilitant.com) - An accused California priest, who brought a defamation suit against a decades-old Catholic watchdog group, is being hit with California's anti-SLAPP statute.
Attorney Paul Jonna is defending Stephen Brady and his organization Roman Catholic Faithful (RCF) from a lawsuit by Msgr. Craig Harrison. Jonna filed an anti-SLAPP motion on Tuesday with Kern County Superior Court in Bakersfield, California.
SLAPP, Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation, is a California statute that's invoked when a lawsuit is "brought primarily to discourage speech about issues of public significance."
Harrison, currently under investigation by his Fresno diocese and multiple police departments for various allegations of corruption including homosexual abuse, claimed Brady defamed him in May at a press conference in Bakersfield. Jonna told Church Militant that Harrison's claim is fraudulent.
It's important to note that Stephen Brady didn’t make any accusations at the press conference. He simply reported credible allegations of abuse on the part of Msgr. Harrison and announced that they’d be investigating the allegations further. He never took a position as to whether the allegations were true. Mr. Brady did this while Harrison was the subject of ongoing criminal investigations and an investigation by his own Diocese.
The complaint was lodged by Harrison, said Brady's attorney, to silence groups like Brady's RCF that expose corruption within the Catholic Church.
"What Harrison is doing now is essentially suing a citizen reporter because he doesn’t like the negative coverage," Jonna remarked. "Fortunately, the Anti-SLAPP law in California provides a mechanism to have frivolous cases like this dismissed early on."
Brady and RCF are not Harrison's only target. The accused priest also filed a similar lawsuit in September against Br. Justin Gilligan, who has provided sworn testimony of multiple allegations against Harrison. The attorney said it's important to win Brady's case in order to protect free speech especially for whistleblowers like Br. Justin.
Harrison’s case is an attack on protected First Amendment activity and it's designed to chill discussion and debate on a matter of significant public interest. It also has the potential of intimidating other alleged victims of Harrison from coming forward; they may fear that they too will be sued if they dare to say anything negative about Harrison — just like Harrison recently sued his first public accuser, Br. Justin.
To overcome the anti-SLAPP motion, Harrison will have to prove Brady acted with malice and reckless disregard for the truth, affirmed Jonna. Given Brady's track record of faithfully reporting on Church corruption, both will be hard to prove, he added.
Since Harrison is a local public figure embroiled in a public controversy, he also has to establish that Mr. Brady acted with "malice" towards Harrison and acted with a reckless disregard for the truth. There is zero evidence that Mr. Brady acted with malice, and that’s a separate basis for the court to dismiss the case at this juncture. This is because Harrison has the burden (in opposing our Anti-SLAPP motion) to present admissible evidence showing that he has a probability of prevailing in this lawsuit. The evidence shows that Mr. Brady acted in good faith, with a love for the Church and a desire to uncover the truth. His successful track-record in rooting out corrupt clergy, including Bishops, is set forth in detail in his accompanying declaration.
Harrison has been resisting a subpoena for personal records, requested by Jonna. These records are kept with the Fresno diocese and relate to Harrison's alleged "sexual abuse, drug use, therapy, gambling, addictive disorders, use of pornography, homosexual behavior and misuse of parish funds."
If the court denies Brady's motion to dismiss the case, noted Jonna, "then Harrison will be placed in the uncomfortable position of trying to prove that all of Mr. Brady’s statements were absolutely false."
This will result in forcing the requested information to be turned over, Jonna stated.
In that context, Mr. Brady and RCF will be entitled to discovery proving that Harrison is a sexual predator engaged in improper and corrupt conduct. That will include reviewing Harrison’s personnel file with the Diocese of Fresno and deposing witnesses with relevant information. It’s highly unusual for someone under criminal investigation to subject themselves to this type of discovery in a civil case, but that’s a problem of Harrison’s own making.
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