Bakersfield · Highlight

Bakersfield priest’s defamation suit against Catholic activist gets green light

With nearly all law enforcement investigations into allegations of sexual misconduct over resulting in no charges, a defamation lawsuit filed by Bakersfield priest Monsignor Craig Harrison is moving forward.

Just before the Thanksgiving holiday, Kern County Superior Court Judge Eric Bradshaw denied motions from Catholic activist Stephen Brady and his organization, Roman Catholic Faithful, Inc. (RCF), seeking to dismiss the lawsuit alleging that Brady defamed Harrison during a May press conference held at the Holiday Inn in Bakersfield.

A key finding for Harrison is that he is a private individual and not a public figure, for purposes of defamation.

That means Harrison merely must prove that Brady acted negligently when making his statements. Had Harrison been designated a public figure, he would need to demonstrate Brady acted with actual malice.

That ruling alone, given Harrison’s widespread notoriety as not just the priest at St. Francis of Assisi in Bakersfield but also a citywide spiritual leader, baffled Paul Jonna, Brady’s attorney.

“I told the court that if Craig Harrison is not a public figure in the town of Bakersfield, then nobody is,” Jonna told KGET-TV.

Another key finding in Bradshaw’s ruling was that Harrison and his attorneys presented evidence sufficient to show that Brady made the defamatory statements during the May press conference.

In a release on Monday, the priest’s attorneys said they “were not surprised with the court’s ruling based on the reckless and salacious nature of the statements made by Brady and RCF.”

While police continue to investigate allegations against Harrison from his time serving in the city of Firebaugh, Kern and Merced County law enforcement officials have closed investigations and declined to charge Harrison, owing to insufficient evidence and expiration of the statute of limitations on the alleged crimes.

The defamation case now continues in discovery. A case management conference is scheduled for February 2020.

Harrison is also pursuing a defamation case against a Catholic Benedictine monk who came forward with allegations during earlier portions of Harrison’s current stint in Bakersfield.

Alex Tavlian
Alex Tavlian is the Executive Editor of The San Joaquin Valley Sun and Executive Director of Valley Future Foundation. You can reach Alex at alex.tavlian@sjvsun.com.