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Pioneering Law Allowed Filing Of Priest Abuse Cases

Sep 30, 2002 | The Los Angeles Times

In opening criminal cases against four former and retired Roman Catholic priests last week, Southern California prosecutors are relying on a 1994 California law that has become a national model for overcoming legal time limits on decades-old child molestation cases.

Without the law, which was upheld by a sharply divided state Supreme Court in 1999, the cases against the priests almost certainly would not have proceeded, prosecutors said.

After the California law was enacted, 40 other states passed extended time limits to bring charges in cases of sexual abuse of children. Some of those states now say they did not go far enough and are seeking even tougher laws to help them prosecute more clergy abuse cases.

That is most notably true in Massachusetts, where the Boston archdiocese has been the center of the priest sex abuse scandal. The California law retroactively lifted the statute of limitations for cases of serious child molestation. Under the law, prosecutors are allowed to file criminal charges up to one year after a victim first reports the abuse to police, regardless of how long ago the crime occurred.

"It has been incredibly useful and very important," said Irene Wakabayashi, assistant head deputy of the Los Angeles district attorney's sex crimes division. "Certainly the priest cases we wouldn't have been able to file without the extended statute of limitations."

Last week, prosecutors in Los Angeles and Orange counties filed their first criminal charges against former priests since the sex scandal broke nine months ago. In Los Angeles, prosecutors charged Michael Stephen Baker, 54, with 29 counts of molestation, including oral copulation, against a boy between 1976 and 1985. Baker has not entered a plea.

Prosecutors charged Carlos Rene Rodriguez, 46, with eight counts of committing lewd acts with a child under age 14 between 1986 and 1987. He has pleaded not guilty.

A third former Los Angeles priest, G. Neville Rucker, has been charged with 23 counts of child molestation between 1947 and 1976.

In Orange County, Gerald John Plesetz, 59, was charged with three counts of oral copulation with a minor under age 16 between 1972 and 1974.

The 1994 law shaped the nature of the charges against the former priests and sets the parameters for their trials.

Under the law, prosecutors face three major legal hurdles:

Did they file within one year of the first report to authorities? Did the alleged acts constitute "substantial sexual conduct"? And is there "independent evidence that clearly and convincingly corroborates" the victim's allegations? The corroboration requirement is intended to eliminate the possibility that a conviction would rest only on a victim's memory of long-ago events.

Donald Steier, Baker's attorney, has scoffed at the charges against his client as "creative writing." Among other things, he said, there is evidence that police had been alerted to Baker's alleged acts in the late 1980s. That, Steier said, could cause the case to run afoul of the one-year filing rule.

The question of what constitutes "substantial sexual conduct" is relatively clear: The law defines it as sodomy, rape, oral copulation and other acts of penetration. In 1999, it was found to apply to cases of one person masturbating another, settling a highly disputed area. The law, however, does not allow prosecution in cases of statutory rape--that is, cases where the sexual acts would be considered consensual but for the fact that one party is a minor.

The most heavily challenged area, prosecutors said, has been the question of corroborating the claims with "clear and convincing" independent evidence. Photographs, confessions or eyewitness testimony by someone other than the victim have met that standard of proof but are not always easy to come by.

Last year, however, a court ruled that statements by other victims reporting child molestation by the same perpetrator constituted sufficient corroboration, Wakabayashi said. As a result, many of the first criminal cases going forward involve defendants accused by multiple victims.

Wakabayashi would not comment on whether church officials would be called to testify. But at least in Baker's case, Cardinal Roger M. Mahony could be asked to take the stand. Baker told Mahony in 1986 that he had molested boys. Mahony has no shield against testifying because Baker's statements were not made in a confessional.

Until this year, authorities often did not bring criminal cases against priests, said Larry Drivon, a Fresno attorney who is involved in more than 150 civil abuse cases spanning every diocese in California. Officials were often willing to let church officials handle any problems, believing assurances that the offender would be removed from children and treated.

"If you think the children will be protected, why would you want to irritate half the Catholics in town and launch a gigantic mess?" he said.

Today, however, the climate has radically changed. As more victims step forward, the demand to crack down on priestly abusers has risen--one national poll found that 80% of Americans favored criminal charges not only against abusive priests, but also bishops who covered up the crimes. District attorneys in Los Angeles, San Francisco and many other cities have assigned investigators to work exclusively on clergy sex abuse cases.

California's law gives prosecutors a powerful tool. By contrast, prosecutors said they are severely hampered in states that did not go as far as California. In Boston, for instance, Suffolk County prosecutors have said that they will not be able to prosecute more than 30 of 50 cases under investigation because the abuse happened too long ago. Prosecutors there are now calling for the removal of the statute of limitations for child rape.

In Cleveland, prosecutors have investigated more than 100 priests but, according to local news reports, do not expect to be able to pursue most of the allegations. A 1999 law in Ohio that extended the statute of limitations from six years to 20 for child molestation cases was not made retroactive, as the California law was.

California's law grew out of an explosion of public awareness about sexual abuse that began in the early 1980s, said Nancy O'Malley, an Alameda County chief assistant district attorney who chairs the sexual assault committee of the California District Attorneys Assn.

By the end of that decade, prosecutors had begun to realize that in many cases, victims were coming forward to report sexual abuse that happened too long ago to allow prosecution. They lobbied to change the statute of limitations, O'Malley said, and in the early 1990s, the Legislature agreed.

Lawmakers "recognized that children don't often come forward with reports of being abused until much later, either because they're embarrassed or they don't really realize it was wrong or because they were threatened by the perpetrator," said Janet Gaard, the special assistant attorney general who successfully defended the law before the state Supreme Court.

The measure sailed through the Legislature but was challenged by defense lawyers whenever it was used, often on the grounds that it impermissibly altered the definition of a crime and increased its punishment after the fact. Because of the challenges, many prosecutors held off on cases until the state Supreme Court could give clear guidance, O'Malley said.

The court's 4-3 ruling in 1999 made California the nation's first jurisdiction to uphold the constitutionality of an extended statute-of-limitations law.

Thanks to several favorable court rulings, Wakabayashi said, the sharpest areas of dispute over the law now have been "pretty much" settled. But Steier hinted that he would challenge several as-yet unexamined aspects of the law, as applied to such areas as evidence and jury instructions.

"This whole area of law is relatively new," he said.

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