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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.


"That's what businessmen want, a business approach, instead of just coming with a hand out," said one executive who attended the meeting. "He also greeted or said goodbye to everyone in the room. That's a talent right there."

Harris chose the eagle as the new school's mascot inspired by Psalm 91, which says God "shall cover thee with his feathers, and under his wings shalt thou trust," and Isaiah 40:31, which proclaims: "They that wait upon the Lord . . . shall mount up with wings as eagles."

As at Mater Dei, Harris was close to students.

"It was like he was president of the corporation, but he knew everyone," Hopkins said. "He made sure the kids were comfortable and liked what they were doing."

Mike Carpenter, who played on the Santa Margarita basketball team, took a houseboat vacation on Lake Shasta with Harris, along with four other boys, four girls and two parents.

Harris treated the students as if he were a best friend, even water-skiing with them on the lake.

Carpenter, who now works in commercial real estate in Orange County, said he was struck by how eager the priest was to bond with the teens.

"He had a lot of energy, and he was almost overly friendly," he said. "I could tell how he could get so close to so many people."

In 1990, Pope John II elevated Harris to monsignor, an honored rank between father and bishop. He continued to raise his profile. He wrote a commentary for the Los Angeles Times in 1991, urging parents to teach their children to abstain from sex.

"As an educator faced with the challenging task of helping teenagers develop values, it is time to confront the compulsive hedonism that plagues adolescents," Harris wrote. "In order to accomplish anything of value, we need to learn to delay gratification."

Deathbed Declaration Begins the Downfall

In late 1993, accusations from Harris' past began to haunt him.

On his deathbed, Vincent Colice of Stanton gave his mother permission to go public with a secret he had told her two years earlier: that Harris had sexually assaulted him while he was a student at Mater Dei from 1977 to 1979. He was dying of AIDS, which he contracted years after his alleged encounter with Harris.

Lenora Colice wrote Harris in November 1993, accusing him of molesting her son. She sent a copy of the letter to diocesan officials.

A week later, Harris replied to Colice.

"Through counseling and other resources I have endeavored to work through many things," he wrote. "Hard work and prayer have helped. It may not be any consolation, but I am very sorry."

The letter was later entered into the court record in the Ryan DiMaria lawsuit. Harris' attorneys said it was meant to offer consolation, not as an admission of guilt.

After receiving Colice's letter, as well as anonymous accusations made through a lawyer by two other former students, the diocese asked Harris to step down temporarily as principal of Santa Margarita. In January 1994, he took a leave of absence, citing job-related stress.

Jeff Hopkins, son of developer Steve Hopkins and a guard on Santa Margarita's championship basketball team who graduated in 1994, remembered the day Harris left.

"The vibe at our school changed completely--for the worse," said Hopkins, who would often hang out at Harris' house along with other teammates.

"I wouldn't trade my four years with him as my principal for anything," said Hopkins, who now works in commercial real estate in Los Angeles.

Harris resigned as principal in February 1994. In a letter to supporters, he said he was leaving because of "stress that has been building for a long time." He did not mention the molestation allegations, which were not yet public knowledge.

Two days later, the Diocese of Orange flew Harris to St. Luke's in Maryland. Though depressed and anxious as he revealed disturbing childhood secrets, Harris impressed his evaluators with an external demeanor "striking for its calmness," the medical report said.

Harris' appearance was so polished that other patients started to confide in him "as if he were a therapist," according to the report.

"Michael has always been most concerned about appearances and his reputation at the expense of his own healing and inner health," wrote Dr. Stephen J. Rossetti of the St. Luke's staff. "As a result, he has been applauded by the community, but he has become isolated, confused, anxious and depressed."

He told the St. Luke's team that he couldn't confirm or deny the allegations of sexual abuse if the information were to be given to the diocese, the medical report said.

He told doctors that he had suffered from sexual conflicts for years and suggested that his affection for his students could have been misinterpreted. He also said he was sometimes sexually aroused while hugging adolescent boys.

When asked what an adult might feel if he were sexually involved with an adolescent, Harris replied that the adult "might want to 'care, to reach out, to console, to love,' " the report said.

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