FRESNO, Calif. (ChurchMilitant.com) - In a stunning double loss for former Bakersfield priest Msgr. Craig Harrison, a California appeals court has dismissed two of his defamation lawsuits on the same day.
On Friday, the California Court of Appeal for the Fifth District handed down two separate rulings rejecting Harrison's claims for defamation. The court reversed lower court rulings in Harrison's favor and ordered that he pay attorneys' fees and other costs in each case.
Harrison had filed the lawsuits in 2019 against Stephen Brady of Roman Catholic Faithful, a whistleblower group that exposes clerical corruption; and Ryan Gilligan, a former monk and associate of Harrison who accused him of homosexual grooming.
This makes Harrison's third loss in court, after a judge in May 2021 dismissed his defamation lawsuit against the diocese of Fresno.
Harrison, ordained in 1987, is credibly accused by at least seven victims of homosexual abuse. In 2019, Gilligan was among several accusers who came forward publicly, leading to increased media scrutiny of Harrison's case, including a 2019 press conference held by Brady's Roman Catholic Faithful in California.
In both of Friday's rulings, the court found that the comments made by Brady and Gilligan were protected speech:
Brady and his organization, Roman Catholic Faithful, Inc., work to uncover evidence of sexual misbehavior by Catholic priests and Brady claimed to be seeking the truth regarding these allegations. For the reasons set forth below, we conclude that the allegedly defamatory statements identified by Harrison are protected by the fair report privilege ... .
And from the ruling on Gilligan's case:
The impetus for the lawsuit is the claim by appellant that Harrison subjected him to inappropriate sexual advances, acted inappropriately with children, and sexually abused at least one minor child. ... For the reasons set forth below, we conclude that the allegedly defamatory statements identified by Harrison are protected by the fair report privilege ... .
"All I ever did was speak my truth," Gilligan said in comments to Church Militant, "and all I want now is Craig Harrison and his attorneys to leave my family and me alone."
"I am very grateful," said Brady in remarks to Church Militant. "This suit delayed all my other work to some degree, to say nothing of legal fees, which we now hope to recover."
Brady has had to spend more than $100,000 in legal costs defending himself in this litigation.
"The best thing, as far as I'm concerned, is that now I can get back to my work without worrying about this nonsense," Brady added.
"We are pleased with the two rulings issued by the Fifth District Court of Appeals finding that Craig Harrison's separate lawsuits against our clients should both be dismissed under California's Anti-SLAPP statute," said attorneys Paul Jonna and Jeffrey Trissell, who represented Brady and Gilligan.
"California’s Anti-SLAPP statute was intended to dispose of frivolous and baseless lawsuits just like the ones Mr. Harrison filed against our clients," they noted. "To disincentivize such baseless lawsuits, the Anti-SLAPP statute provides that a prevailing defendant's attorneys' fees must be paid by the losing plaintiff."
"We will now seek to recover from Mr. Harrison the substantial attorneys' fees that our clients have incurred during this process," they added.
The diocese placed Harrison on leave in April 2019 after a man accused the priest of abusing him when he was a 16-year-old altar boy. Other accusers also came forward, including Gilligan.
"I was in Fr. Craig's inner circle from 2011 to 2016 and am a victim of his inappropriate touching, lies, manipulation and abuse of power," said Gilligan in a public statement.
"I witnessed him being inappropriate with children, giving gifts/money, saying sexual jokes, touching, and being alone with them," he continued. "I have also witnessed him taking advantage and controlling the lives of younger men entrusted to him that have had drug or alcohol problems."
In a statement to the Bakersfield Police Department in May 2021, Gilligan related to police instances of Harrison's alleged inappropriate activity, including:
In response, Harrison smeared Gilligan as a liar and an alcoholic. Gilligan stood by his claims and expressed little surprise that Harrison would try to discredit him by destroying his reputation.
Harrison was initially accused of abuse more than 20 years ago, in 1998, by a male teen who lived in the rectory of St. Joseph's Catholic Church in Firebaugh. He claimed Harrison would inspect his genitals each night under the pretext that it would reveal whether the boy was doing drugs.
The allegation is identical to that of another boy who lived in one of Harrison's homes for troubled teens.
A 2004 report obtained by Church Militant written by former FBI agent Tom Walsh quotes a former resident of one of the boys' homes, who relayed that "every morning Harrison lined up all the boys who were residing in the house and examined each boy’s testicles with a flashlight. Telling them that by doing this he could tell if any one of them was using narcotics."
Harrison's alleged conduct is also identical to two other accusers who have more recently stepped forward, saying Harrison would also inspect their genitals, using the same reasons. Another accuser claims Harrison pinned him against the wall and rubbed his erect penis against him.
Most of the alleged victims are Latino males from troubled backgrounds.
The 2004 FBI investigator's report goes on to detail evidence of at least one suicide of a boy who lived with Harrison.
After the 2019 allegations, three separate police departments conducted investigations. While none of them resulted in prosecutions, both the Merced and Fresno county district attorneys admitted they were barred by the statute of limitations.
The Fresno district attorney acknowledged the allegations were "credible."
Bakersfield Police, where Harrison was longtime chaplain, were criticized for what some called a biased and sham investigation, in which 95% of witnesses were ignored and never questioned.
Harrison is himself the subject of at least two civil lawsuits, filed by accusers who claim he sexually violated them repeatedly as boys. They are being represented by victims' attorney Jeff Anderson.
In a letter from Bp. Joseph Brennan read aloud at all diocesan parishes in April 2021, the bishop acknowledged the credible allegations against Harrison: "It might be helpful for you to know that the diocese of Fresno did receive allegations of misconduct involving seven minors against Craig Harrison. The Diocesan Review Board reviewed all available information regarding each allegation and arrived at the opinion that the allegations were credible."
The bishop also criticized Harrison for calling himself a "life coach" and "counselor," after he had already resigned from the priesthood.
"I do not begrudge anyone's effort to make a living," Brennan wrote. "I must say, however, that I would like to know what advanced degrees or certificates he has worked for and received so as to qualify for offering such services."
Today Harrison hosts a blog titled "Craig's Inspirations" that offers "inspirational videos" and personal reflections. He also offers talks on spirituality.
He calls himself "an inspirational speaker, author and community leader for over 35 years," going on to add: "His insights, ecumenical spirit and positive attitude have influenced many people on their journey of self-discovery."
7/23/2022: This article was updated with comments by attorneys for Stephen Brady and Ryan Gilligan.