Editor's Note 1: The plaintiff who accused Fr. Michael Mahoney of abusing him as a child has dropped his lawsuit since this story was first published. The plaintiff's attorney said his client stands by the allegation but does not want to proceed in court at this time.
Editor's Note 2: The lawsuit against Rev. James Pulskamp was dropped by the plaintiff since this story was published. The plaintiff's attorney said her client misidentified his abuser, and that Pulskamp was not responsible.
Two Bay Area Catholic dioceses are allowing priests they employ to remain in ministry despite lawsuits now accusing the men of sexually abusing children earlier in their careers, NBC Bay Area has confirmed.
The findings come amid an ongoing NBC Bay Area investigation into a flood of new child sex abuse claims hitting Catholic institutions across the state. The civil lawsuits are the result of a 2019 California law that opened a three-year “lookback” window allowing new child sex abuse lawsuits based on claims typically barred by the statute of limitations.
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Among the hundreds of new Northern California legal filings are startling accusations against four Bay Area priests who still work in the region. The dioceses they serve told NBC Bay Area internal reviews did not substantiate the claims against the men, and it would be unjust to keep them out of ministry.
Dan McNevin, a local leader for the victim advocacy group SNAP (Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests), said he's skeptical of such internal diocesan reviews.
“The bishops have an obligation to sideline these people,” McNevin said. “Not only for the victim, who is courageous, but because the bishop is on notice that this priest might be dangerous.”
Three of the accused priests – Fr. David Ghiorso, Msgr. Michael Harriman, and Fr. Michael Mahoney – work under the Archdiocese of San Francisco. Either directly or through their attorneys, all three priests refuted the allegations against them.
The other priest – Rev. James Pulskamp – is the pastor of Santa Rosa’s Star of the Valley Catholic Church. Pulskamp did not respond to NBC Bay Area’s request for comment, but Santa Rosa Bishop Robert Vasa said in a statement he finds it difficult to give the allegation any credence given the priest’s stellar reputation over the past 50 years.
With one exception, the allegations against the priests are linked to two centers founded as homes for vulnerable children who were removed from troubled households: St. Vincent’s School for Boys in San Rafael and the Hanna Boys Center in Sonoma.
The claims relate to events occurring across nearly two decades, from the mid-1970s through the early 1990s. If true, the decades-old accusations expand what we know about Northern California’s clergy abuse scandal and suggest that internal lists of “credibly accused” priests released by most Bay Area dioceses in recent years are still incomplete.
The plaintiffs making the accusations have so-far declined to be interviewed, but the lawsuits, and in some cases, their attorneys, detail the allegations.
Rev. James Pulskamp & Hanna Boys Center
The oldest accusation targets Rev. Pulskamp during his time as a priest at the Hanna Boys Center. The school and residential treatment center for vulnerable children has been a hotspot for child sexual abuse accusations in recent years.
Pulskamp is accused in a new lawsuit of molesting a child there in the 1970s.
“Because [the children there] are more vulnerable, they become prey for priests and people who work there,” said Mary Alexander, a Bay Area attorney who filed the lawsuit on behalf of an unnamed plaintiff. “So, it is something that we see all the time.”
While Pulskamp now serves as the pastor of his Santa Rosa church, he’s listed as a Regent Emeritus on the Hanna Boys Center’s website.
Bishop Vasa said Pulskamp remains in ministry after an internal review board recommended no action be taken against the priest. However, the Bishop said the diocese will continue to investigate any new details that emerge.
Alexander said Pulskamp and any other priests facing new abuse accusations shouldn’t be working until more information comes out through the legal process.
“I think that any priest who is still active and is accused, that he should be put on administrative leave, that there should be no access to children,” Alexander said.
The San Francisco Priests
According to the Archdiocese of San Francisco, the three priests facing accusations were placed on leave pending internal investigations, but were returned to ministry when the review board did not sustain the allegations.
The Archdiocese declined multiple interview requests from NBC Bay Area to discuss the cases, but in a statement, called the priests “Faithful and highly respected pastors” and said, “It would have been an injustice to them and those they serve to keep them out of public ministry after the determination of the review board.”
One of those priests, Fr. Michael Mahoney, currently serves as pastor of Our Lady of Angels in Burlingame and is accused of molesting a second-grade boy in the 1980s. His accuser, who filed the lawsuit as “John Doe,” alleges Mahoney would stare at him in class following the abuse. Mahoney declined to comment when reached by phone by NBC Bay Area.
Msgr. Michael Harriman & Fr. David Ghiorso: Allegations at St. Vincent’s School for Boys
The remaining priests, Msgr. Michael Harriman and Fr. David Ghiorso, face allegations they abused children at St. Vincent’s School for Boys, who live at the school away from their families.
NBC Bay Area has confirmed that Harriman now faces at least one abuse allegation, while Ghiorso has multiple accusers.
Harriman retired from San Francisco’s St. Cecilia parish five years ago but continues to work as a priest, according to the Archdiocese. Catholic directories show he was assigned to both St. Vincent’s and CYO Camp during the early 1980s and is accused in a lawsuit of sexually abusing children during his time there.
The priest denied the allegation when reached at his home by NBC Bay Area.
“There’s been an investigation and I’ve been proven innocent,” said Harriman, who declined to answer any further questions.
Ghiorso, who later followed Harriman at CYO Camp and St. Vincent’s in the mid 1980s, is also accused of abusing St. Vincent's boys.
One of the plaintiffs, Gary Johnson, alleges in the civil complaint that he and other St. Vincent's children were sex trafficked by priests between the school and a remote Sonoma County Catholic summer camp known as CYO Camp in the early 1980s.
“Shortly after these trips to Camp Armstrong began taking place, Perpetrator Defendants would round the boys up at night,” the lawsuit alleges. “After plying the boys, including Plaintiff Johnson, with alcohol, perpetrator defendants then began to engage in sexual acts with the boys, including Plaintiff Johnson, or forced the boys to engage in sexual acts with one another, The range of these sexual acts varied but included oral copulation and anal sex.”
The lawsuit alleges Johnson was sent to another foster home when he reported the abuse to school officials.
“Rather than reporting the criminal sexual abuse to law enforcement authorities or addressing the cause of Plaintiff Johnson’s abuse to protect others, St. Vincent’s immediately removed Plaintiff Johnson from St. Vincent’s and placed him in a foster home, thereby ending his abuse.”
The second plaintiff in the lawsuit, Marcus Raymond Hill, alleges he arrived at St. Vincent’s in 1989. For a period of about a year, according to the civil complaint, he was given wine and raped by Ghiorso while he served as an altar boy.
A separate lawsuit, filed in April, accuses Ghiorso of repeatedly raping an unnamed Plaintiff during his time at St. Vincent’s between 1988 and 1991, beginning when the plaintiff was about 10 years old.
According to the lawsuit, Ghiorso’s accuser attempted to run away from the school due to the abuse and was heavily medicated by school officials during his time there “in an attempt to control these behavioral outbursts.”
The plaintiff, according to the lawsuit, had repressed memories of the alleged abuse until an investigator working on behalf of the church contacted him while looking into separate claims against the priest.
Ghiorso’s attorney, Donald “Duffy” Magilligan, strongly rejected the accusations made in the two lawsuits.
“It’s a shame that a good man can be wrongfully accused in order to wring money, wring settlement money, out of the Catholic Church,” Magilligan said of the lawsuits accusing Ghiorso. “It’s shameful.”
Magilligan said he has evidence that refutes the allegations against his client, though he declined to disclose what that evidence is.
“We’re not going to try our case in the media,” Magilligan said. “I admit to you it would be a great story for you if you heard what that evidence was in this case, but we’re going to try this case in front of a jury.”
Others Possibly Coming Forward
On a recent trip to the Bay Area, Southern California attorney Michael Carney visited the San Francisco Public Library to review a series of Catholic directories in its collection.
Carney said he's doing research for more than 300 Northern California clergy abuse cases his firm is investigating or preparing to file, dozens of which include accusations against priests never publicly accused of abuse before.
“The name Father Dave Ghiorso is a name that is of interest to us, and specifically it’s a name that’s of interest to us in three separate claims cases,” Carney said.
Those accusations are separate from the claims of the three other plaintiffs, not represented by Carney, who have already filed lawsuits accusing the priest of abuse.
Carney declined to discuss the details of the allegations but said they relate back to the priest’s time at St. Vincent’s.
Magilligan said he couldn’t comment on what Carney told NBC Bay Area since he’s unaware of the specific allegations and they’re not currently included in any legal filings.
So far, more than 200 lawsuits have been filed in Northern California accusing priests or church employees of abuse. It’s likely other new names will emerge by the time the three-year lookback window closes on Dec. 31.
Even so, Carney said many victims will likely never come forward, leaving the true depths of the scandal a mystery.
“No matter what happens, no matter how much the public comes to support survivors, they’ve made a decision for themselves that this is a secret that they’re never, ever going to reveal to someone,” Carney said.
NBC Bay Area’s investigation remains ongoing, and we’ll continue to update this story as we learn more.