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Molestation Allegations Dim Star of O.C. Priest : Diocese: Popular Santa Margarita principal denies abuses at Mater Dei. He quit amid church investigation.

October 16, 1994|TRACY WEBER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Nine months after one of Orange County's best-known priests abruptly quit as the founding principal of Santa Margarita High School, allegations have surfaced that Msgr. Michael Harris sexually molested students in his office when he held the same job at Mater Dei.

In a lawsuit filed last month in Orange County Superior Court, David A. Price, now 29, claims that the priest regularly abused him during school hours over the four years he attended Mater Dei. Price has contended the priest would summon him to his office with special hall passes delivered to his classes, and would then force him to engage in sex acts.

Through his attorney, Harris "flatly and completely" denied the lawsuit's allegations last week. His attorney also said there was no connection between Harris' sudden departure from Santa Margarita earlier this year and allegations of sexual misconduct.

Officials with the Roman Catholic Diocese of Orange, which is also a target of Price's lawsuit, said they had not been formally served and could not comment.

But diocesan officials on Friday disclosed for the first time that Harris had been asked to take a leave of absence in January while an investigation into similar allegations was underway.

They also revealed that Harris' right "to function as a priest" was revoked when he refused to abide by orders given him by Bishop Norman McFarland after the investigation.

"The diocese investigated the matter and as a result he was told to seek spiritual and medical treatment," said Msgr. Lawrence Baird, the diocese spokesman. Baird said Harris is presently studying for a graduate degree in education at Pepperdine University.

With the filing of the latest suit, Harris becomes the eighth Orange County priest or brother known to have been charged or sued over the past six years for allegedly committing sexual improprieties with minors.

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According to court documents and interviews with Price, family members of other alleged victims and church officials, the undoing of Father Harris began when the mother of another former Mater Dei student quietly approached diocesan officials last December.

Lenora Colice told church officials that she had asked Harris to pay special attention to her troubled teen-age son. Instead, she said, her son related his allegations that the priest had molested him during his junior and senior years. And she had in hand what she thought was an apology.

After her son died of AIDS last year, Colice wrote Harris to confront him with her son's allegations, and to say she could never forgive him. In his Dec. 9 response, Harris wrote: "Through counseling and other resources I have endeavored to work through many things. . . . It may not be any consolation, but I am very sorry."

John Barnett, Harris' personal attorney, said the letter that Harris wrote to Lenora Colice is not "an admission of any misconduct whatsoever. . . . A person with less sensitivity would have said, 'Your son is a liar.'

"Father Harris counseled thousands of students and he flatly denies the allegations that have been lodged against him," he said.

Barnett, a prominent criminal defense attorney, said Harris stepped down because of his "desire to have a change in his life" after two decades of service. There was no connection between Harris' decision to leave Santa Margarita High and the allegations of sexual abuse, Barnett said.

In January--only weeks after Colice's talk with the diocese--Harris unexpectedly took an indefinite leave of absence from his high-profile job at Santa Margarita High School, the state-of-the-art, $26-million gem of the Catholic school system in Orange County.

Harris told students and friends that he needed a break from the stress of his job. There was no mention of any allegation of sexual misdeeds, or of any pressure from his superiors to take a leave of absence.

It wasn't until March, two months after Harris quit, that diocesan officials publicly disclosed that he had been accused of "sexual improprieties." Church officials said then that Harris denied the charges, and they had been unable to locate "anyone who has any allegation to make of sexual misconduct with him or her by Msgr. Harris."

In June, yet another Mater Dei student from the same era came forward--David Price. Long before he approached church authorities, Price had been seeing a therapist. Last December, about the same time that Colice was complaining to the diocese, Price's therapist filed a report with the Orange County Social Services Agency accusing Harris of child molestation.

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In the lawsuit he filed in mid-September, Price alleged that he had repressed all memory of the incidents until August, 1993, when it gradually came back to him, and he started seeing a psychotherapist.

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