Matt C. Abbott
Two Catholic priests sue for defamation
By Matt C. Abbott
December 19, 2019
A recent statement (slightly edited) from attorney Paul Jonna, who represents Catholic activist Stephen Brady (who has a good track record of exposing corruption in the hierarchy):
Beginning in 2004, Roman Catholic Faithful (RCF) began investigating clergy misconduct in the Merced, California area, together with now-retired FBI Agent Thomas Walsh. During that investigation, RCF was contacted by 'Trevor Silveira' (a pseudonym), who forwarded RCF an email he had sent to the Diocese of Fresno regarding Father Craig Harrison. RCF and Agent Walsh reported that allegation to the Merced County District Attorney, and left it at that.
Then, on April 25, 2019, the Roman Catholic Diocese of Fresno, California issued a press release titled: 'Allegations of Sexual Misconduct with a Minor against Reverend Monsignor Craig Harrison.' That press release stated that on April 12, 2019, an adult reported an allegation of abuse that took place when he was a minor. As a result, the Diocese of Fresno reported Harrison to the police, removed him from active ministry, and began conducting an internal investigation. At the time, Harrison had been assigned to a parish in Bakersfield, California and was the Dean of the Bakersfield Deanery.
The intense media scrutiny of the Harrison investigation reached RCF's attention, and RCF decided to investigate Harrison. On May 29, 2019, RCF held a press conference in Bakersfield to report to the press and discuss the allegations sent to it in 2004. Harrison responded by suing RCF and its founder, Stephen Brady, for defamation – asserting that RCF had wrongfully re-published false and defamatory allegations of sexual misconduct.
On September 24, 2019, RCF filed a motion to compel the Diocese of Fresno to turn over all documents regarding allegations of sexual abuse levelled against Harrison, as well as all documents regarding his alleged gambling problems. On November 4, 2019, the trial court ordered that the diocese was required to turn over all such documents to it for its review.
The court is in the process of reviewing the documents for privilege/privacy concerns, and it will subsequently determine which documents must be produced to RCF. The trial court indicated that the diocese had produced two large binders of documents, approximately four to five inches thick. The trial court's review is ongoing, and another hearing is set for January 31, 2020.
On October 29, 2019, RCF and Brady filed an anti-SLAPP motion to strike Harrison's complaint. That motion argued that Harrison's complaint was legally deficient due to several legal doctrines, including the right to neutrally report newsworthy information. On November 25, 2019, the trial court heard oral argument on that motion and ultimately signed a final order denying it on or about December 12, 2019.
As a result, Harrison's lawsuit will proceed, notwithstanding the serious legal deficiencies identified in the anti-SLAPP motion, and RCF's key defense will be establishing that the statements made at the May 29, 2019 press conference were in fact true. In other words, the ultimate question for the jury in this case will be whether in fact Harrison engaged in sexual abuse of minors. RCF and Brady will be able to support their defenses by identifying and deposing key witnesses, subpoenaing third parties, and gathering as much evidence as possible of Harrison's alleged sexual abuse.
RCF retains the ability to appeal the denial of its anti-SLAPP motion and is still assessing whether to do so.
And a statement (slightly edited) from attorney Christopher Kolomjec, who represents Father Eduard Perrone of the Archdiocese of Detroit:
Father Eduard Perrone continues to maintain his innocence from the highly-publicized allegations against him, and expresses his sadness and disappointment at the unfair treatment he has received from the Archdiocese of Detroit during its preliminary investigation.
On July 5, 2019, Father Perrone was restricted from exercising all public ministry after the Archdiocese of Detroit determined that a 'credible' allegation of sexual misconduct had been made against him. Father Perrone passed a polygraph test regarding this allegation, and his legal team has established that this accuser's June 10, 2019 statement to the Michigan State Police and the accuser's prior comments to reporters from the Associated Press contradict the Archdiocese of Detroit's determination.
The Michigan State Police investigator who interviewed the accuser specifically reported that the accuser denied any touching of genitals by Father Perrone, as well as any sexual penetration by Father Perrone. Moreover, the Michigan State Police investigator found that more salacious allegations reported by Macomb County Sheriff Detective Sergeant Nancy LePage were 'not supported' by the investigator's interview with the accuser. The investigator also noted that the accuser 'just has a hunch' that Father Perrone could have taken advantage of him.
Father Perrone's legal team has also learned that Ms. LePage misconstrued at least one interaction with a key witness to the accuser's alleged abuse in her report of her investigation. Ms. LePage summarized an interview she had with Mr. James Fortenberry, a contemporary and friend of the accuser, in which she claimed Mr. Fortenberry admitted he stayed overnight in Father Perrone's bedroom, among other things.
Mr. Fortenberry strongly disputes this allegation, as well as other implications in Ms. LePage's summary of their conversation that suggested Mr. Fortenberry had been abused by Father Perrone, but just didn't want to talk about it. Mr. Fortenberry credits Father Perrone with being a singularly positive influence on his life, and denies ever being subjected to, or witnessing, any abusive behavior by Father Perrone.
On October 15, 2019, the Archdiocese of Detroit, through its official investigator James Smith, sent Mr. Fortenberry a letter suggesting that Mr. Fortenberry could have been a victim of Father Perrone, and implying that Father Perrone's kindness to Mr. Fortenberry's family after the death of Mr. Fortenberry's brother Dale could have been part of a 'grooming process.' Mr. Smith even offered to fly to Alabama to meet with Mr. Fortenberry. When Mr. Fortenberry instead drove from Alabama to Michigan to meet with Father Perrone's attorneys and provide his story in support of Father Perrone, the Archdiocese of Detroit refused to meet with him.
Mr. Smith's letter also included a statement that two altar boys who had served with Mr. Fortenberry had accused Father Perrone of abuse. After his suspension from active ministry, Father Perrone learned that a second person, a recently released felon, also accused him of inappropriate conduct, although this claim has not yet been formally evaluated by the archdiocesan review board.
Father Perrone does not know this second accuser, and several of the second accuser's statements are demonstrably false. Specifically, the accuser claimed his family was a member of St. Peter's parish, when they were not, and he also claimed he was an altar boy at St. Peter's parish, when he was not. On October 1, 2019, Father Perrone took and passed a second polygraph test, which confirmed that he did not have any sexual contact with this second accuser.
To date, the Archdiocese of Detroit has shown little interest in uncovering the truth, and instead seems focused on proving guilt at all costs. Father Perrone remains hopeful that truth and justice will prevail, and is grateful for all of the prayers and support from countless supporters.
Also, Perrone has sued Mary Rose Maher
, director of St. Mary's Haven, for defamation. Maher was featured in a July 29, 2019 Associated Press story
about the group Opus Bono Sacerdotii.
ChurchMilitant.com has been covering the Perrone case extensively. Christine Niles, editor-in-chief of news at CM, said in an email that the case is "[s]till ongoing. The next court hearing is Jan. 17, 2020, where Father Perrone's attorney (and CM's attorney) will argue to unseal the Detroit archdiocesan investigative file on Father Perrone.
"We believe the file contains evidence of corruption on the part of the Archdiocese of Detroit in its mishandling of the Perrone investigation; and that Catholics have a right to know how their resources are being used in targeting a good priest. Please pray for a good outcome."
© Matt C. Abbott
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