A Catholic priest who was disciplined in 2000 for running a sexually explicit website for gay clergy has been removed from the priesthood after Maine church officials said they substantiated an allegation that he had sexually abused a minor in the early 1980s.
The Roman Catholic Diocese of Portland said it got word from the Vatican on Friday that its findings against John E. Harris had been upheld and the former priest was “dismissed … from the clerical state.”
Harris, now 59, voluntarily separated himself from a public ministry in 2003 after having served in five Maine parishes over 19 years, said Dave Guthro, the diocese’s spokesman. Guthro said Harris, who now lives in Canada, had waived his right to challenge the accusation of abuse.
The Vatican finding can’t be appealed, Guthro said.
In 2000, Harris was disciplined by the church for setting up the website as part of a gay priests’ online discussion group. The site included photos of the discussion group’s members and pictures of naked men.
At the time, Guthro said, Harris was removed from a public ministry while the diocese investigated his role with the website. He was allowed to return to the ministry after about four months, Guthro said, but then he asked for a leave of absence in August 2003 to take some academic courses.
A month later, a picture of Harris with a boy, taken in the early 1980s, surfaced. Guthro said church officials were never able to identify the boy and that it appeared nothing sexual had taken place, but the photo was “inappropriate.”
Guthro said he didn’t know exactly what the photo depicted.
“It was a real dilemma for the bishop at that time” because church officials couldn’t identify the victim, Guthro said. Harris never returned from his leave of absence, but priests aren’t officially separated from the priesthood without a finding by the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, ratified by the pope.
The new allegation surfaced in March 2013, Guthro said, by a man who said he had been abused by Harris as a boy. Guthro said the allegation was also referred to the Maine Attorney General’s Office, but he doesn’t know what action, if any, state investigators took.
Attempts to contact the Attorney General’s Office Friday night were unsuccessful. Guthro said he does not know where in Canada Harris now lives.
There is no statute of limitations in Maine for cases involving unlawful sexual contact or sexual abuses of a minor.
Guthro said the diocese’s investigator determined that Harris’ relationship with the boy started before Harris became a priest and continued after he joined the priesthood. Harris had met the boy “through social circles,” Guthro said.
A diocesan committee and Bishop Robert P. Deeley agreed with the findings and sent the recommendation to remove Harris from the priesthood to the Vatican, Guthro said.
The man making the accusation was not the same person as the one in the picture that church officials discovered in September 2003, Guthro said. The investigation did not find any victims from the parishes that Harris served, Guthro said.
Harris, who was born in Westbrook, became a priest in 1984 and was assigned to Sacred Heart Parish in Portland; Saints Athanasius & John Parish in Rumford; St. Anthony Parish in Jackman; Our Lady of Rosary Parish in Sabattus, including its mission church, St. Francis in Greene; and Our Lady of the Lakes Parish in Oquossoc.
Guthro said Harris isn’t eligible for a pension and received no financial support from the church after 2003.
SNAP, the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, issued a statement Friday night criticizing the church for the time it took to remove Harris from the priesthood.
“Now, finally, Catholic officials in Rome have finally defrocked Fr. Harris from the priesthood,” said the statement from David Clohessy, director of the Missouri-based support group. “Why has it taken, at best, a dozen years?”
Clohessy said Deeley should hold a news conference to warn people about Harris and urge any other victims to come forward.
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