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Cases Turned Over As DA In San Diego Seeks Review

Jun 19, 2002 | San Diego Union-Tribune

At District Attorney Paul Pfingst's request yesterday, the Roman Catholic Diocese of San Diego turned over information about 15 child sexual abuse cases involving priests, including allegations dating back to the 1950s.

Pfingst said he talked to the diocese's bishop, Robert Brom, who "promised 100 percent cooperation with our investigation into criminal acts."

Four of the cases had been reported to law enforcement, including all of those in which the victim was underage at the time of the reporting, Pfingst said. The remaining 11 cases involve adults recounting to the diocese that they had been abused as children, sometimes decades ago. The most recent complaint handed over to the district attorney was from 1996.

Pfingst's decision to review the cases comes as part of an unfolding national scandal involving allegations of sexual abuse of minors by priests and of a cover-up by the church hierarchy.

Last week, U.S. Catholic bishops meeting in Dallas responded to the six-month-old scandal by adopting a national zero-tolerance policy in which all priests who molested children would be permanently removed from any kind of church ministry.

The bishops also pledged "openness and transparency." On Monday, two days after that meeting ended, Brom announced that since he became bishop in 1990, there have been 23 complaints of sexual abuse of minors.

The cases came from throughout the diocese, which includes San Diego and Imperial counties, and by the time the allegations surfaced, most of the accused priests were dead or no longer in the ministry, Brom said. One case remains under investigation. In addition to the San Diego cases, eight complaints apparently involve priests in Imperial County.

Monsignor Steven Callahan, the diocese's chancellor, said church officials decided to immediately turn over the 15 San Diego cases when Pfingst asked for clarification of Brom's Monday announcement. "We didn't want to wait until the district attorney says you must turn them over," he said.

It could not be determined last night whether information about the remaining eight cases has been forwarded to the Imperial County District Attorney's Office.

Last month, church leaders and California prosecutors began collaborating on a statewide standardized protocol for dealing with allegations of sexual abuse by priests. Pfingst, who is president-elect of the California District Attorneys Association, is leading the effort.

He said the diocese's decision to hand over the San Diego cases was "beyond the requirements of the law," but it is what the protocol will address.

"We are using this protocol to help people who want guidance in what to report, even though they are under no legal duty," Pfingst said.

Both the San Diego diocese and Pfingst have said the diocese has complied in turning over sexual abuse allegations since 1997 when the state adopted a law mandating that church officials report suspicions of sexual abuse of minors.

"If the person is no longer a minor, the church is not under any legal duty to report it," Pfingst said.

Pfingst said adults with complaints about sexual abuse should be coming forward themselves to law enforcement officials, even those who have complaints about abuse that occurred decades ago.

But it is not so easy for victims, said David Clohessy, national director of Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, or SNAP. "If your parish priest doesn't respond sensitively, it's very hard to imagine some cop on the night beat responding sensitively," he said.

SNAP's San Diego representative, Mark Brooks, said Catholics view the church as their extended family and believe that they will get the help they need by reporting to the church.

"You go there, and everything will be taken care of," Brooks said.

A Catholic might not go to law enforcement because "no one wants to bring shame to their own family," he said.

So why did the diocese delay in turning over complaints to civil authorities?

Callahan said one reason is that when they originally came in, they were too old. "In a number of cases, the priests were dead so there was no prosecutable offense," he added.

But the recent revision in the statue of limitations law makes at least some of these cases active. The rules state that the time limit for getting the cases to court begins when the abuse is reported to law enforcement, Pfingst said.

Although prosecuting old cases is difficult, it is not impossible, Pfingst said. The district attorney has created a special prosecution team to look into the complaints and has set Dec. 31 as a deadline to review all of them.

Even if accused priests have left active ministry, Pfingst said that will not deter investigations into those complaints.

"It does not matter to me if the person has left the priesthood," Pfingst said. "The sexual molestation of a youngster is a criminal case."

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