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Judging the Sins of the Father

Msgr. Michael Harris lost his priesthood over sex-abuse claims, but the former Orange County principal's aura endures.

November 10, 2001|WILLIAM LOBDELL and JEAN O. PASCO | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

It was the grand opening of Orange County's new Catholic high school, and Msgr. Michael A. Harris proudly surveyed the hundreds of students and parents who sat before him.

To a roar of applause from the audience, he ripped open his black clerical shirt to reveal a Superman logo. The "S" stood for Santa Margarita High. Harris was the guiding force behind the new school and its first principal.

The superhero insignia also spoke to the image Harris projected, a mix of celebrity and saintliness, and to the feelings of reverence he inspired in Southern California's Catholic community. Known as "Father Hollywood" for his good looks and charm, he raised millions for the church and formed tight friendships with judges, developers, philanthropists and other members of Orange County's elite.

That was one side of Michael Harris. The other was revealed to psychologists and doctors who evaluated him years later, after a former student accused him of molestation. Harris confided to the doctors that he was afraid to pray alone, afraid of what thoughts would surface when he found himself at one with God.

"Michael is not able to reconcile the good persona that he shows to the world with the self-loathing and conflict he feels within," according to a church-ordered evaluation.

In 1994, seven years after that joyous grand opening, Harris was eased out as principal of Santa Margarita and quietly barred from wearing the collar. Over the next few years, four more former students would accuse him of molestation.

In August, the Roman Catholic Church paid $5.2 million to one of those men. It is believed to be the largest publicly disclosed payment the church has ever made to an individual victim of sexual abuse. Though Harris denied wrongdoing, the Diocese of Orange issued a public apology to all five of his accusers and agreed to a set of measures designed to deter future abuses and assist victims.

Harris' days as a priest are over, but his aura has endured. His hold on his admirers remains strong. Despite his public disgrace, many continue to believe in him. Some still have the souvenir Superman shirts he handed out at that opening assembly 15 years ago.

With help from wealthy supporters, Harris has started a new career--as a developer of low-income housing. Through nonprofit organizations he established under the name Caritas--Latin for charity or love--he purchased mobile-home parks in Orange County. He collects government subsidies for renting the units to low-income people. His nonprofits paid Harris $91,000 in 1998, the most recent year for which figures are available.

Members of the Caritas boards include two prominent home builders, a retired judge and philanthropist Roger Kirwan, chairman of the Orange County Performing Arts Center.

"I believe in him until proven otherwise," said Dr. Burr McKeehan, a board member and longtime friend. "We're all talking about the bad he's supposedly done. The good he's done is amazing. Without him, that school [Santa Margarita] would never be there."

Childhood Pain From 'a Lack of Nurturance'

Harris was raised in Brea, an old oil town on the northern tip of Orange County that became a bedroom community of tract houses and strip malls.

Harris declined to be interviewed for this story. Details of his boyhood appear in a report by doctors at St. Luke's Institute in Maryland, a treatment center for troubled priests where Harris was evaluated for five days in 1994. The report became part of the public record in a lawsuit filed by one of his accusers, Ryan DiMaria. This is the case that was settled in August.

Harris told therapists at St. Luke's that his was a difficult childhood: His mother was an alcoholic who drank herself to death. His father worked several jobs and was rarely at home.

The report said that Harris' teenage years were marked by "a lack of nurturance and comfort and [by] emotional isolation."

"At later points in his life," the doctors wrote, "some of Michael's actions appear to be directed at receiving the comfort that he did not receive as a child."

Harris attended Orange County's leading Catholic school, Mater Dei High School in Santa Ana. He was involved in music, the student council and theater. Harris played the lead in the comedy "The Worm Will Squirm." His character was a buffoonish high school principal. He went on to St. John's Seminary in Camarillo, earning undergraduate and graduate degrees.

Classmates said Harris was influenced by the priests at Mater Dei and emerged quickly as a leader.

"Like many of us, he had a priest or two in his background who had encouraged him," said Father Theodore Olson, a classmate who is now pastor of St. Angela Merici Church in Brea. "And he found the idea of service very attractive and thought it would be a good use of his talents."

Finding His Calling as High School Teacher

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