Bakersfield

Fresno Catholic Diocese scores win over ex-priest in defamation row

The Roman Catholic Diocese of Fresno won a key legal battle in a Fresno County court which threw out a defamation suit filed by now-former Bakersfield Monsignor Craig Harrison.

The suit, which alleged that the Diocese’s top spokeswoman, Teresa Dominguez, defamed him by stating in an NPR interview that she visited the home of an alleged sexual assault victim and told the individual that she believed his claims of misconduct by Harrison against him.

In court filings, Harrison and his attorneys argued that the statements by Dominguez equated to the Diocese believing the allegations against him.

In a ruling siding with the Diocese, Fresno County Judge Kristi Culver Kapetan said that the court had to review Dominguez’s comments to the public radio station using a “totality of the circumstances” test, examining the language used to determine if it asserted her opinion – which would not be considered defamatory.

Kapetan found that her statement was “the equivalent of giving her ‘impression,'” and therefore an expression of opinion rather than fact, avoiding liability for defamation.

Harrison was first alleged to have engaged in misconduct in early 2019, when a wave of allegations from his stints in Fresno and Merced counties along with Kern County emerged.

Law enforcement agencies in all three counties declined to prosecute him for the various allegations, citing a combination of the expiration of the statute of limitations on the alleged crimes or, in other cases, lack of evidence.

He was placed on administrative leave in 2019 by the Diocese before resigning this February.

Harrison’s attorneys contested Kapetan’s ruling, saying that few people would find Dominguez’s statement to the alleged victim to be an expression of opinion.

“We think if you polled 100 people out at Target and Walmart and read them those statements, 99 if not 100 would agree (Dominguez) endorsed the charges and accused (Harrison) of child abuse and molestation. If you’re a neutral person, you don’t apologize for someone,” he said Friday, the Bakersfield Californian reported.

Harrison plans on appealing Kapetan’s decision to dismiss the defamation suit against the diocese.

The two other defamation cases – one against Catholic activist Steven Brady an another against Catholic monk Justin Gilligan (née Ryan Dixon) – are currently on appeal after Superior Court judges denied similar motions to dismiss.

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.