Bakersfield

Fresno’s Catholic Diocese settled defamation suit with Bakersfield ex-priest. What did they pay out?

A three-year-long public relations and legal battle between Fresno’s Roman Catholic Diocese and a highly-visible, highly-popular former priest over allegations of defamation stemming from probes into sexual misconduct are now, firmly, settled.

Tuesday morning, Fresno’s Catholic Diocese broke its silence over the announced settlement with Harrison.

For much of 2019, Harrison faced a barrage of public allegations of sexual misconduct over the course of his pastoral career in Fresno, Merced, and Kern counties.

The former Monsignor of Bakersfield’s St. Francis of Assisi parish was probed by the District Attorneys of those three counties along with an internal investigation by the Diocese of Fresno while on leave.

After 22 months on leave, Harrison resigned his post, claiming that Fresno Diocese had “sacrificed the Gospel for politics and money.”

In the wake of his resignation, Harrison fired off three defamation suits: one directed at the Diocese and its former top spokeswoman, Teresa Dominguez; and two others aimed at Catholic activist Stephen Brady and monk Justin Gilligan.

Harrison’s suit alleged that the Diocese, via 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.

A Fresno County Superior Court judge tossed the case last May, finding that Dominguez’s statements constituted an expression of opinion rather than fact, a key element of defamation.

The case was on appeal before the Fresno-based Fifth District Court of Appeal before news broke last week that Harrison and the Diocese reached a settlement in the matter.

In its Tuesday statement, Diocese officials confirmed the settlement and dismissal of the appeal of the suit.

“[T]he matter was resolved between the parties with Mr. Harrison dismissing his appeal challenging the Fresno Superior Court Judge’s ruling that no defamation occurred,” a Diocese spokesman said in a statement.

However, the most interesting comment was left for last.

“[N]either the Diocese, nor Ms. Dominguez paid any money to Mr. Harrison.”

Friday, the Fifth District Court of Appeal issued twin rulings regarding the suits waged by Harrison against Brady and Gilligan.

In both cases, jurists found that the public statements made by the pair constituted a “fair report” of an on-going public proceeding or investigation into Harrison, an exception to defamation liability.

Reid Stone is a contributing reporter for The San Joaquin Valley Sun.