Mahony Resources – July 2003
By Steve Berry and Richard Winton
The only priest still jailed while awaiting trial in Los Angeles on child molestation charges was released Monday as the county's top prosecutor vowed to press forward with his investigation of alleged wrongdoing in the Roman Catholic Church.
"This is not over by any means," Dist. Atty. Steve Cooley said Monday. "The fat lady hasn't sung yet."
"There is no doubt there was a huge moral institutional failing and personal moral failing," Cooley said. "Whether that amounts to criminal culpability remains to be seen. We don't have the facts yet."
Across California, prosecutors struggled Monday with the legal ramifications of a controversial U.S. Supreme Court ruling that prohibits prosecution in decades-old child molestation offenses. The decision affects about 800 cases statewide, involving people who have been convicted, who have confessed or who have charges pending. About 200 cases are in Los Angeles County.
[Photo Captions - Carlos Rodriguez, an ex-priest accused of child molestation, appears in court prior to his release because the Supreme Court overturned a state law that allowed the filing of charges beyond the statute of limitations. Photo by Richard Hartog, Los Angeles Times. Arraignment: Former priest John Salazar appears in court for his arraignment. Molestation charges against him may be dismissed Wednesday. Photo by Associated Press. Dismissal: A Ventura County judge dismissed charges Monday against former priest Carl Sutphin. Photo by Stephen Osman, Los Angeles Times.]
Prosecutors are finding an average of about 10 cases per county in California that are affected by the ruling, said Nancy O'Malley, head of the sexual assault committee of the California District Attorneys Assn.
In other developments Monday:
* Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge David Horwitz ordered former priest Carlos Rene Rodriguez released from County Jail, pending a court appearance July 9.
* Superior Court Commissioner Jeffrey Harkavy said he probably would dismiss child molestation charges against John Anthony Salazar on Wednesday.
* In Ventura County, a judge dismissed molestation charges against retired priest Carl Sutphin.
In each case, judges cited the U.S. Supreme Court decision.
Last week's ruling overturned a portion of a California law that allowed prosecution of certain sex offense cases, even if the statute of limitations had expired, if district attorneys filed charges within a year after the offense was reported.
In Rodriguez's case, Deputy Los Angeles County Public Defender Arthur C. Braudrick said he expects the case to be dismissed, probably on a motion by the prosecution.
Rodriguez, 46, of Commerce, was charged with molesting an altar boy from 1985 to 1987 when he served at St. Vincent de Paul Church. Rodriguez has been in jail since September, awaiting trial. His bail was $400,000.
Salazar's case is expected to be dismissed Wednesday with the defendant's having to return to court, unless the district attorney's office decides to try to continue prosecuting him, the court commissioner said.
Salazar was charged last November with molesting a youth at the rectory house at St. Bernard High School in Playa del Ray.
"It's a kick in the head," said Carlos Perez-Carillo, 37, the complaining witness in the Salazar case. "I've been in therapy for a year, and I feel like I'm back to square one," he said. "The criminal case would have been priceless for me, because I would have received justice and there would have been a message sent out to people who molest children that they were not going to get away with that."
In Ventura County, the charges against Sutphin, 71, were dismissed at the request of the district attorney's office.
Sutphin was accused of molesting six boys, ages 7 to 12, between 1968 and 1978 while he was an associate pastor at a Camarillo church and a chaplain at an Oxnard hospital.
Saying that those who claimed to have been attacked by Sutphin are extremely disappointed "doesn't even come close to describing the emotions they are feeling right now," Deputy Dist. Atty. Doug Ridley said outside the courtroom. "It's a sad day for victims of child molestation in this state and in this county."
Sutphin, who had pleaded not guilty, had tears in his eyes after Judge James Cloninger granted the dismissal, said defense lawyer James Farley.
In San Diego, authorities have said that they would seek the dismissal of charges against a retired San Diego priest accused of molesting a 15-year-old church worker in the late 1970s. The priest, Franklyn Becker, was arrested in May 2002 in Mayville, Wis., and was to be extradited to California next week. The California attorney general's office has decided not to pursue extradition, said Peter Quon, deputy attorney general in San Diego.
As prosecutors, defense attorneys and state corrections officials struggled with the aftermath of the Supreme Court decision, the non-criminal claims against priests continued to advance in court.
Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Marvin Lager, who is overseeing hundreds of claims against the Catholic Church, Monday agreed to let lawyers for alleged victims issue subpoenas to priests accused of molesting children.
There was concern that accused priests would leave the country as their criminal cases were dismissed to try to avoid being deposed in the civil litigation, said Venus Soltan, a Costa Mesa attorney. Soltan has filed 30 suits against the dioceses in Southern California and is expected to file at least 20 more.
Once subpoenaed, if they flee, "we can have an order of attachment issued to bring them back to the state of California," said Beverly Hills attorney Raymond P. Boucher, who represents more than 200 alleged victims of sexual abuse by priests. "It significantly limits their ability to hide."
Lager also granted a request by the Archdiocese of Los Angeles to halt all other proceedings, at least until the next court hearing on July 17.
Cooley is scheduled to meet today with his top managers and prosecutors to decide how to proceed on the 200 child molestation cases affected by the ruling.
"These cases involve not only priests, but doctors, fathers, boyfriends and Scout leaders," Cooley said.
A pending ruling by a retired judge on whether prosecutors are entitled to more than 2,000 pages of church communications may be key to that decision. Cooley's office is seeking the information through a grand jury subpoena. Lawyers for Mahony and individual priests are fighting to keep them secret.
Times staff writers Jean Guccione, Li Fellers and Fred Alvarez contributed to this report.
By Fred Alvarez and Richard Winton
A Ventura County judge dismissed molestation charges Monday against a retired Catholic priest, four days after the U.S. Supreme Court struck down a California law that allowed decades-old sex abuse cases to be prosecuted.
As a result of the ruling, prosecutors asked the judge to drop 14 counts of child molestation against Father Carl Sutphin, 71, who was accused of molesting six boys, ages 7 to 12, between 1968 and 1978 while serving as an associate pastor at a Camarillo church and a chaplain at an Oxnard hospital.
[Photo Captions - Ruling: 14 counts of molestation against Father Carl Sutphin were dismissed. Photo by Stephen Osman. Free: Ex-priest Carlos Rene Rodriguez was ordered released from L.A. County Jail on Monday. Photo by Richard Hartog.]
Deputy Dist. Atty. Douglas Ridley said he requested that the charges be dismissed Monday morning after informing Sutphin's accusers over the weekend.
"To say that [the alleged victims] are extremely disappointed doesn't even come close to describing the emotions they are feeling right now," Ridley said outside the courtroom. "It's a sad day for victims of child molestation in this state and in this country."
Sutphin, who had pleaded not guilty and was free in lieu of $200,000 bail, shed tears after Judge James Cloninger granted Ridley's request, according to Sutphin's attorney, James Farley.
"When other defendants who were in custody started to get released, there was a pretty good indication this might happen," Farley said. "They did the right thing."
Ventura County prosecutors said they also intend this week to ask that charges be dismissed against Father Fidencio Silva, who was charged in March with 25 counts of child molestation.
Silva, 53, who ran the altar boy program at Our Lady of Guadalupe church in Oxnard from 1978 to 1986, is believed to be in Mexico. Officials with the district attorney's office are contacting alleged victims in that case and are scheduled to go to court Thursday to ask that the charges be dropped.
The charges followed a lawsuit filed by eight men who served as altar boys and helped Silva at services when they were between the ages of 11 and 15. Those men include Oxnard Police Det. Manuel Vega, who accused Silva of sexual abuse and urged prosecutors to take up the case.
Vega tracked down other altar boys who also said they were molested by Silva. The group last year sued the priest, his order and the archdiocese.
Vega said he was disappointed by the Supreme Court ruling, but believes civil litigation will bring the changes that victims of sex abuse by the clergy are seeking.
"To me, what occurred in the last two years has been a tremendous victory for victims of the clergy, because we have put this ugliness before people," Vega said. "We made it very visible. The only thing this ruling has done is put it on the front page again. It's definitely not over."
In Los Angeles, the only priest still jailed while awaiting trial for child molestation also was released Monday as the region's top prosecutor vowed to press forward with his investigation of alleged wrongdoing in the Roman Catholic Church.
"This is not over by any means," Los Angeles Dist. Atty. Steve Cooley said Monday. "The fat lady hasn't sung yet.
"There is no doubt there was a huge moral institutional failing and personal moral failing," Cooley said of the Catholic Church. "Whether that amounts to criminal culpability remains to be seen. We don't have the facts yet."
Across California, prosecutors struggled Monday with the legal ramifications of the Supreme Court's controversial ruling. The decision affects an estimated 800 cases statewide -- involving convicted molesters, those whose charges were pending and some who had confessed -- and at least 20 in Ventura County.
In Los Angeles County, Superior Court Judge David Horwitz ordered former priest Carlos Rene Rodriguez released from jail, pending a court appearance July 9.
And Superior Court Commissioner Jeffrey Harkavy said he probably will dismiss child molestation charges against John Anthony Salazar, another former priest, on Wednesday.
In each case, judges cited the Supreme Court decision.
Last week's ruling overturned a portion of a California law that allowed prosecution of certain sex offense cases even if the statute of limitations had expired, as long as district attorneys filed charges within a year after the offense was reported.
Los Angeles County Deputy Public Defender Arthur C. Braudrick said he expects the Rodriguez case to be dismissed, probably on a motion by the prosecution.
Rodriguez, 46, of Commerce, was charged with molesting an altar boy from 1985 to 1987 when he served at St. Vincent de Paul Church. Rodriguez has been in jail since September awaiting trial. His bail was set at $400,000.
Salazar's case is expected to be dismissed Wednesday without the defendant being required to return to court, unless the district attorney's office decides in the interim to try to continue prosecuting him, the court commissioner said.
Salazar was charged in November with molesting a youth at the rectory at St. Bernard High School in Playa del Rey.
"It's a kick in the head," said Carlos Perez-Carillo, now 37, the alleged victim in the Salazar case. "I've been in therapy for a year, and I feel like I'm back to square one," he said. "The criminal case would have been priceless for me, because I would have received justice and there would have been a message sent out to people who molest children that they were not going to get away with that."
In San Diego, authorities have said they will seek dismissal against a retired San Diego priest accused of molesting a 15-year-old church worker in the late 1970s. The priest, Franklyn Becker, was arrested in May 2002 in Mayville, Wis. and was to be extradited to California next week. The California attorney general's office has decided not to pursue extradition, said Peter Quon, deputy attorney general in San Diego.
As prosecutors, defense attorneys and state corrections officials struggled with the aftermath of the decision, the civil claims against priests continued to advance in court.
Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Marvin Lager, who is overseeing hundreds of claims against the Catholic church, Monday agreed to let lawyers for alleged victims issue subpoenas to priests accused of molesting children. Lager also granted a request by the Archdiocese of Los Angeles to halt all other proceedings at least until the next court hearing on July 17.
Attorneys are concerned that accused priests might leave the country as their criminal cases are dismissed to try to avoid being deposed, said Venus Soltan, a Costa Mesa attorney. Soltan has filed 30 suits against the dioceses in Southern California and is expected to file at least 20 more.
Once subpoenaed, if the defendants flee, "we can have an order of attachment issued to bring them back to the state of California," said Beverly Hills attorney Raymond P. Boucher, who represents more than 200 alleged victims of sexual abuse by priests. "It significantly limits their ability to hide."
Cooley is scheduled to meet today with his top managers and prosecutors to decide how to proceed on the 200 child molestation cases affected by the Supreme Court ruling.
"These cases involve not only priests, but doctors, fathers, boyfriends and Scout leaders," Cooley said.
A pending ruling by a retired judge on whether prosecutors are entitled to more than 2,000 pages of church communications may be key totheir decision.
Cooley's office is seeking the information through a grand jury subpoena.
Times staff writers Tracy Wilson, Steve Berry, Jean Guccione and Li Fellers contributed to this report.
By Christine Hanley and Akilah Johnson
Child molestation charges were dropped against former Orange County Superior Court Judge Ronald C. Kline and three other suspected Southern California molesters Wednesday, following a U.S. Supreme Court ruling that bars prosecution of old sex cases.
A San Bernardino judge also ordered the release of a man who recently began serving a sentence for a molestation in the '80s.
[Photo Caption - Dismissed: Five felony charges against former Judge Ronald Kline have been dropped. One count remains.]
One week after Supreme Court justices found a California law unconstitutional because it waived the statute of limitations in sexual abuse cases, Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Daniel Solis Pratt dismissed five felony charges against Kline. They stemmed from an incident in which Kline allegedly molested a 14-year-old boy in 1979. Authorities charged Kline after a computer hacker obtained a copy of his diary and forwarded it to police.
Kline's molestation case is one of hundreds statewide that exceed a six-year statute of limitations on molestation and may be abandoned as a result of the high court's ruling. The California attorney general has directed prosecutors across the state to re-examine cases that may be affected by the ruling and estimates that as many as 800 cases may need to be reviewed.
"It's a very difficult process to identify people who were prosecuted under this statute," said Hallye Jordan, spokeswoman for the attorney general's office. "We're still trying to figure out how many cases we have here."
Charges were dropped against Kline, who would have faced up to six years in prison if convicted, after defense attorney Paul S. Meyer filed a motion to dismiss them. Saying she had no other choice, Deputy Dist. Atty. Sheila Hanson declined to oppose the motion.
"I'm disappointed that the victim and the public have lost their chance to seek justice for the abuse that occurred," Hanson said. "But the United States Supreme Court has ruled, and as a result Mr. Kline cannot be prosecuted for these offenses."
After Wednesday's hearing, Kline's lawyer said he would have expected the same outcome had the case gone to trial.
"We plead not guilty from Day One," Meyer said. "In all of the hoopla about the Supreme Court, let's not forget the presumption of innocence. I am confident Judge Kline would have been acquitted in trial."
The dismissal of the state charges is the second dose of good news for Kline in three weeks. It comes after a federal judge's decision to throw out most of the key evidence in a separate child pornography case against him.
Two years after Kline's arrest and his decision to give up his bid for another term on the Orange County bench, the cases against him have been greatly reduced.
Kline, 64, once faced a combination of state and federal felonies and misdemeanors. Now, unless the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals restores crucial evidence in the federal case, the former judge faces a single federal count of possession of child pornography, a felony that carries a maximum of five years in prison.
In addition to the dismissal of Kline's case Wednesday, authorities in Orange and Los Angeles counties announced the dismissal of charges against two former priests and an ex-teacher.
Orange County prosecutors reported that charges have been dismissed against two abuse suspects: Carl Bucy, a Huntington Beach middle school teacher accused of molesting a female student in the early 1970s, and Gerald John Plesetz, a former priest accused of impregnating a 14-year-old girl who allegedly gave birth to his child almost 30 years ago.
In Los Angeles County, John Anthony Salazar became the first former priest in the county to have molestation charges dismissed against him. Salazar was charged with molesting a student at St. Bernard High School in Playa del Rey and an altar boy at Santa Teresita Church in Los Angeles more than 20 years ago. Prosecutors said the cases against nine other priests will probably be dismissed as well.
"As Mr. [Dist. Atty. Steve] Cooley said before, it looks like all those are going to be dismissed," said Deputy Dist. Atty. Irene Wakabayashi, assistant head deputy of the sex-crimes division.
Though priests only account for a small fraction of the more than 200 cases throughout L.A. County thought to be affected by the ruling, they are the only cases so far that authorities have been able to identify outright.
The priests' cases are easy to identify, said Jane Robison, spokesperson for the L.A. County district attorney's office. "They are the only pending cases we have right now."
Also Wednesday, in San Bernardino County Superior Court, a judge ordered a 60-year-old man released from jail, where he recently began serving a six-year sentence for molesting a female minor in his family between 1980 and 1984. A jury convicted Eli Mellor in January.
Times staff writers Lance Pugmire and Monte Morin contributed to this report.
By Daren Briscoe
A group representing victims of sexual abuse at the hands of Catholic priests said Saturday that California's 12 Roman Catholic bishops should offer rewards to people who report abusers within the church.
After the recent Supreme Court decision barring the prosecution of hundreds of suspected abusers, the payments would convey that the church is committed to rooting out abuses by its clergy, said David Clohessy, national director of the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests, or SNAP.
Clohessy said the group plans to hand-deliver a letter to the chancery at the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels asking that a reward fund be set up. He said the group would e-mail copies to bishops statewide.
How much the rewards would be and other details have not been determined, he said, but he added that any rewards would be for information given to law enforcement officials that led to the conviction of abusers.
"Victims are terribly distraught over the court ruling, parents are worried, and something needs to be done," he said.
"Like it or not, money can sometimes be a motivator."
SNAP describes itself as an all-volunteer self-help group for people who have been victimized by clergy. Clohessy said the 13-year-old, Chicago-based organization is the nation's oldest and largest such group.
Told of the group's request for a reward fund, Tod Tamberg, a spokesman for the Los Angeles Archdiocese, said the church has committed itself to removing any clergy member found to have abused a minor and to immediately reporting to authorities any and all allegations of sexual abuse.
"We've taken measures that are far more effective than simply throwing dollars at the problem," he said. "If law enforcement authorities want to offer money for their own purposes, that's up to them."
On June 26 in a 5-4 decision, the Supreme Court struck down a 1993 California law that allowed criminal charges to be brought in about 800 cases, many of them decades old, by effectively voiding the statute of limitations for some sex offenses.
California was the only state with such a law.
About 200 cases in Los Angles County were affected by the ruling, which ended prosecutions against priests who prosecutors hoped would implicate senior church officials in a cover-up.
Legal observers and victims' attorneys predicted a shift in the focus of claims against the church from criminal to civil courts. SNAP's call for a church-sponsored reward fund may suggest that the effort to secure criminal prosecutions could shift to more recent allegations of abuse.
Clohessy said "a culture of secrecy within the church that starts at the top" hampers investigations into wrongdoing by priests, and that reward money offered by the church might help undermine that culture.
More important than the amount of money offered in exchange for information about abuse, he said, is the signal a reward would send to people who withhold information out of misguided loyalty to the church.
"It would be a visible sign that it's OK, that in fact it's even Christian, to break the silence to report unknown or suspected abuse," he said.
Los Angeles County Dist. Atty. Steve Cooley remains engaged in an ongoing dispute with the archdiocese over access to records that the church considers confidential. Cooley said Saturday that he would have to review SNAP's proposal before commenting, but added that carefully constructed reward funds can be "an arrow in the quiver" of law enforcement.
"Such a method to get people to give information would be in conjunction with the ongoing and continuing effort we've made to secure records that we believe are reposed with the archdiocese," he said.
By Christine Hanley and Richard Winton
Charges were dropped Tuesday against two former Southern California priests in the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court ruling that struck down the state's efforts to prosecute old molestation allegations.
Orange County Superior Court Judge Thomas M. Goethals dismissed 10 felony sexual assault counts against John Lenihan, who was arrested in March and freed on $100,000 bail while he awaited trial.
Lenihan, who had been a popular pastor at St. Edward Church in Dana Point, was accused of impregnating a teenage parishioner of a church in Orange 21 years ago and paying for her abortion. A key piece of evidence was a letter he wrote to Pope John Paul II, asking to be released from the priesthood. In it, Lenihan, 57, admitted he had had affairs with two teenagers starting in 1978.
"I'm disappointed that the victims lost their chance to have their day in court to seek justice for the abuse they endured," said Deputy Dist. Atty. Sheila Hanson.
The former clergyman was not in court for the proceeding. His attorney, Ron Talmo, could not be reached for comment.
Lenihan's hearing was pushed up after the Supreme Court last month overturned a state law that had erased the statute of limitations on molestation cases. In 1993, the Legislature changed the law to say that accused abusers could be prosecuted so long as the charges were brought within a year of when authorities were notified. The law was retroactive.
In Los Angeles County, Michael Wempe became the fourth priest to have his case dismissed since the Supreme Court decision. He was arrested last month and faced 42 counts of child molestation for allegedly sexually abusing five boys during the 1970s.
Cardinal Roger M. Mahony removed Wempe from the ministry in 2002 as the abuse scandal escalated, and the archbishop retroactively applied a zero-tolerance policy for abusers.
Wempe, 63, was accompanied to the Malibu courthouse by his mother, with whom he lives.
"He was very grateful," said his attorney, Leonard Levine. "His only regret is he didn't get a chance to clear himself."
At least three alleged victims have sued Wempe and the Los Angeles Archdiocese.
By Jessica Logan
Malibu - All charges against accused child molester and former Catholic priest Michael Wempe, including those allegedly committed during his tenure in the Antelope Valley, were dropped Tuesday as a result of a U.S. Supreme Court decision.
Wempe worked between 1979 and 1984 at St. Mary's Catholic Church in Palmdale and as a staff member at Paraclete High School.
Newport Beach resident Lee Bashforth, one of the first men to come forward with allegations of child sexual abuse against Wempe, said he is devastated about the news.
"I had a week's worth of relief, thinking that this man would never be able to do this to another child because he will be behind bars, and they took it all away," Bashforth said.
Bashforth said he had been molested in the Antelope Valley while Wempe was assigned in the area.
Wempe was arrested June 19. Exactly one week later, the Supreme Court rejected the California law under which Wempe and possibly 800 other people statewide had been prosecuted.
The law allowed for the prosecution of alleged child molesters when the statute of limitations had expired.
Tuesday, Wempe appeared in court with his mother.
"I'm just sorry this ever had to happen, you know, that these kinds of things happened," he said on the courthouse steps after the hearing. "I'm happy that it's been dismissed."
The former priest, chaplain and teacher was forced to resign from the priesthood in 2002 by Cardinal Roger Mahony.
Wempe was alleged to have abused five boys between 1977 and 1983 .
Deputy District Attorney Todd Hicks found five men who allegedly had been abused by Wempe while he was in the service of the Catholic Church in Southern California.
Two of the men allegedly were abused in the Antelope Valley when Wempe worked at St. Mary's and Paraclete.
"You see these men, these articulate men with families and careers, who become little children again when they talk about this, they break down and cry," Hicks said.
Hicks said the charismatic priest would ingratiate himself with families who had young boys. Once he gained the family's affection and trust, he allegedly would molest their young sons. He would take the boys out on trips, where he allegedly would engage in the same behavior.
Hicks was able to file 42 counts of child abuse against Wempe.
Hicks said five more men came forward with stories of abuse against Wempe, including two more from the Antelope Valley.
The case against Wempe was strong because all of the witnesses' stories were similar, Hicks said.
But Hicks was forced to drop the charges Tuesday because of the Supreme Court decision.
Hicks said he welcomes any person who may have been abused by Wempe after 1988 to come forward because he now can prosecute only sexual abuse cases that happened after that year.
He said because Wempe was sent out of active parish duty before 1988, the chances of having a victim in those years is unlikely.
Hicks said he was disappointed the California law was overturned, because it was designed to help victims.
Wempe's lawyer, Leonard Levine, disagreed. He said the state law allowing prosecutors to pursue old molestation cases was flawed.
"It should have been ended long ago," he said. "It was our position that the statute was unconstitutional from the time it was passed by the Legislature."
Wempe may be free of criminal charges, but his alleged victims' pain remains, they say.
"This is the first thing I think about when I wake up in the morning and the last thing I think about when I go to bed at night," said Bashforth, who claims he was molested by Wempe from the time he was 7 until he turned 15.
He said he was upset the U.S. Supreme Court could overturn the California law because it shows the justices do not truly understand child abuse.
He said it is common for victims of childhood sexual abuse to wait long periods of time before they come forth because of shame or repressed memories.
Despite the setback on the criminal front, four men are forging on with a civil suit against Wempe and the Catholic Church.
For these men, it's not about money. It's about bringing their story to light, according to their attorney, R. Richard Farnell.
"I am of course very disappointed," Farnell said. "This is the luckiest day of (Wempe's) life. He dodged the bullet and he's out on a technicality from a quirk of the law, unfortunately for his victims."
Wempe's was the latest in a growing number of cases in which charges were dismissed after the Supreme Court decision.
Charges have been dropped against four of the 11 former Catholic clergy who had faced molestation charges in Los Angeles County.
Reviews of the remaining cases are ongoing, with charges likely to be dropped if the alleged abuse occurred before Jan. 1, 1988, authorities have said.
The Associated Press contributed to this story.
By John M. Broder
LOS ANGELES, July 12 — George Neville Rucker, an 82-year-old former Roman Catholic priest, was on a two-month cruise off the Aleutian Islands in Alaska, when, the authorities said, his past finally caught up with him.
Alaska state troopers arrested him, harnessed him on a tug boat and returned him to Los Angeles, where he faced charges of molesting 12 girls over 30 years, starting a year after he was ordained as a priest in 1946. If convicted, he faced a possible prison sentence of 26 years.
But this week, before any evidence was presented to a jury, Mr. Rucker walked out of court a free man.
He is among perhaps hundreds of people in California who are being freed from trial or jail as a result of a United States Supreme Court ruling on June 26 overturning a 1993 California law that allowed charges against child molesters protected by a previous deadline on prosecutions.
State officials said the decision affected as many as 800 people accused of sexual offenses or already convicted.
The ruling and the release of the offenders has infuriated victims and frustrated prosecutors.
"We're still licking our wounds here," said William Hodgeman, head of the sexual crimes unit of the Los Angeles County district attorney's office. "Conservatively, we have over 200 impacted cases in L.A. County alone, with the prospect of it going higher."
He added, "Without question, there will be established child molesters free from custody and allowed to go back into the communities from whence they came."
Among those the decision frees, prosecutors said, are Roman Catholic priests accused in some of the most notorious molestation cases in California. In addition to Mr. Rucker, prosecutors dropped charges this week against two other former priests. The decision applies to all molesters recently charged in crimes that occurred before 1988 or recently convicted in such crimes.
Among them is John Anthony Salazar, a former priest charged with molesting a student at a rectory at a Catholic high school and an altar boy at a church in Los Angeles in the early 1980's.
"It devastated me and my family," said Carlos Perez-Carrillo, who said Mr. Salazar molested him repeatedly at St. Bernard High School in Playa del Rey 20 years ago. "You wait for justice for 20 years, and then it's taken away overnight."
In a 5-4 decision, the Supreme Court ruled that the 1993 California law that, effective in 1994, extended the deadline for prosecuting sexual crimes violated the Constitution's prohibition on laws that make an action illegal after the fact.
Until 1994, child molesters could not be prosecuted in California more than six years after the offense. The new law extended the time in which prosecutions were allowed and authorized prosecutions that the old law's deadline had barred.
Under the new law, an adult could provide evidence of sexual molestation before age 18, regardless of when it occurred, and prosecutors had a year to bring charges.
The Supreme Court's ruling said the Constitution's ban on retroactive laws prohibited prosecution for offenses that had been previously barred by the passage of time. The ruling took effect immediately, and several people accused of sexual offenses were released the next day.
"Trials were stopped, people were released from prisons, investigations were closed," Bill Lockyer, the California attorney general, said in an interview. His office is compiling records of cases affected by the decision, and he estimated that 500 to 800 prosecutions would be dropped.
"The court has the last and final word on these matters, and I respect their sensitivity to the constitutional provision," Mr. Lockyer said. "But I think they're wrong. These crimes were committed; they're awful crimes; and turning these people loose creates risks for all children in this state."
The ruling allows charges for molestation after 1988 because only the retroactive extension of the deadline for prosecution was overturned, he said.
On Monday, charges were dropped against Mr. Rucker, who was accused of sexually assaulting 12 girls from 1947 to 1977. The youngest victim was 7, prosecutors said.
After his arrest on the cruise ship, Mr. Rucker was freed on bail and was to have been tried later this year. He has been living in a Los Angeles home for retired priests.
Mr. Rucker's lawyer, Donald Steier, said the California law was defective and he would have challenged it at trial.
Prosecutors cannot conceal their dismay at the effect of the decision.
"I am frustrated and disappointed," said Rosanne Froeberg, chief of sex crimes prosecution in the Orange County district attorney's office. "I have gone through a series of emotions, not dissimilar to a divorce."
Ms. Froeberg said this week that she had identified eight cases that had been dismissed, or would be, and three sexual offenders who would be released from prison. Three of her cases involved clergy, she said.
The worst part, she said, has been breaking the news to victims and victim advocates.
"I have to let them know that these people will be getting out of custody" without any provision for probation, parole or protective orders, she said. Those affected by the decision will not have to comply with the state's law that requires sexual offenders to register with the authorities and notify the communities in which they intend to live.
Katherine Freberg, a lawyer in Irvine, Calif., who represents several people who say they were abused by priests, said the ruling would affect not only the estimated 800 child molesters in the California justice system but also many others.
"Potentially thousands and thousands of other pedophiles will get away with their crimes because other state legislatures will be reluctant to pass new laws," Ms. Freberg said. Lawmakers in New York, Massachusetts, Illinois and Florida, she said, had been considering extending the statute of limitations for sexual crimes against children but would now be unlikely to try.
Mr. Perez-Carrillo, 37, said that his molestation by Mr. Salazar had undermined his relationship with the church, which he said had been the center of his life when he was growing up in the San Fernando Valley. Now he said he was equally disillusioned with the state.
"The implications of what happened at the Supreme Court — that 800 possible child molesters and rapists are going to be set free — is just overwhelming," said Mr. Perez-Carrillo, a supervising social worker in Los Angeles. "The Supreme Court needed to look at the protection of children and they didn't. This is just a devastating blow for children."
By William Lobdell and David Reyes
A lawsuit filed in Orange County Superior Court on Tuesday alleges that several pedophiles on the staff of Mater Dei High School, one of the nation's largest parochial schools, systematically preyed on students in the 1970s.
Two men accused in the suit were for decades among the county's recognized Catholic educators: Michael "Father Hollywood" Harris and John Merino, a lay employee. Harris was principal at Mater Dei and Santa Margarita high schools. Merino began at Mater Dei in 1956 and served in various positions, including vice principal; he has since retired. Neither has been charged criminally and so are not affected by a recent Supreme Court ruling that prevented the state from suspending the statute of limitations in criminal molestation cases.
Pablo Espinoza, 42, who lives in Madrid, was able to sue because of a new state law that lifts the statute of limitations for molestation-related civil suits against institutions for this year. Espinoza's lawsuit identifies Harris and Merino but does not name them as defendants. The complaint alleges that Harris, Merino and others molested Espinoza. The lawsuit also alleges that unnamed school officials failed to protect the plaintiff, who was 15 to 16 at the time.
Timothy C. Hale, Espinoza's Santa Barbara attorney, said his client left Mater Dei in 1977 for St. Anthony's Seminary to escape the abuse. But he said Espinoza experienced more abuse at the Santa Barbara boarding school, which has since closed. Espinoza filed a similar lawsuit in Santa Barbara County Superior Court on Thursday against the religious order that ran the school.
The Los Angeles and Orange diocese paid $5.2 million to a victim to settle molestation claims against Harris in 2001. During litigation, four others stepped forward to say Harris abused them, though they weren't parties in the suit. As part of the settlement, Harris agreed to be removed from the priesthood.
Neither Harris nor Merino could be reached for comment. Shirl Giacomi, a spokeswoman for the diocese in Orange, said officials had not seen the lawsuit but considered the allegations "very serious."
The Orange and Los Angeles dioceses are defendants in the Espinoza suit because the Santa Ana school was under the jurisdiction of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles until the Diocese of Orange was formed in 1976.
According to Hale, Espinoza said that when he was a student, he was too afraid to tell anyone what was happening.
"Pablo's story is unlike anything I've ever heard," Hale said.
According to the lawsuit, Espinoza attended Mater Dei from 1975 to 1977. The lawsuit alleges that before, during and after this time, many Mater Dei students "served as an ongoing supply of victims" for the pedophiles who worked at, volunteered and visited the school.
Beginning at age 15, Harris, Merino and 10 others repeatedly abused Espinoza on and off campus, the lawsuit says.
After Merino retired, he frequented the Mater Dei campus as a volunteer, helping produce and direct school plays and annual musicals. School officials declined to comment.
John Manly, a lawyer in the $5.2-million settlement case who also filed three lawsuits involving teachers or priests at Mater Dei, said he believes there are now six people accused of sexual abuse who worked at the school from 1974 to 1987.
"There needs to be an independent investigation in what appears to be the widespread sexual molestation at the high school," said Manly, a Mater Dei graduate who is not connected with Espinoza's suit.
By Laura A. Ahearn
When the cell door in Shasta County slammed shut in July 2001 on her father, Donna was able to sleep well for the first time in 25 years. Knowing that the man who molested her and her two sisters was behind bars, unable to prey on others, gave her a sense of relief unlike anything she'd known since he started abusing them in the late 1970s.
That relief was shattered when the U.S. Supreme Court decided to give convicted and confessed child molesters a get-out-of-jail-free card.
In the month since the Supreme Court struck down a California law retroactively extending the period for prosecuting those accused of sex crimes against children, at least 24 convicted child molesters have been set free. They include a Tulare County minister convicted of molesting his two daughters in the 1970s and an Antelope Valley karate instructor who pleaded no contest last year to 14 counts of lewd conduct involving two children.
In Los Angeles County alone, 200 are expected to be set free; statewide, that number could total up to 800 -- leaving their victims again feeling violated, only this time by the U.S. Supreme Court. The decision left most victims feeling shocked and outraged.
One victim likened the process of seeking justice to trying to face her darkest fear for the first time and also to a dream come true: to finally face her abuser and let him know how much he hurt her and her sister. But thanks to the Supreme Court decision, she and her sister are facing their worst nightmare because the perpetrator may soon be released after serving just two years of the 10-year sentence he received for sex crimes committed against them.
In the ruling, Justice Stephen Breyer justified his decision, saying that "the accused lacked notice that he might be prosecuted" and therefore "he was unaware of any need to preserve evidence of innocence."
In so many words, the court absurdly suggests that child molesters might mark their calendars to note the statute of limitations deadline, save evidence that would somehow show that they did not commit the sex offense, and then, after the deadline passes, throw away that evidence.
In California, until 1994, sex crimes could not be prosecuted after either three or six years from the date of the crime, depending upon the specific offense. Lawmakers took a trailblazing step to retroactively extend the statute of limitations to revive old cases because they recognized that molested children are often too ashamed, fearful and traumatized to report crimes within a brief period.
Each state legislature enacts its own statutes of limitations reflecting social values, public interest and legislative judgments that weigh the burden versus the benefit of prosecuting old crimes. Recognizing that there is a benefit, a number of states have no limitation period for prosecuting felonies or other broadly defined classes of serious crimes, such as sexual assault. Other states have amended or eliminated their statutes of limitations in light of the development of DNA technology and its ability to make identifications after long lapses of time.
There is no evidence to suggest that states without a statute of limitations for sexual assault cases are experiencing difficulty in prosecuting cases or that they are treating defendants unfairly.
The national implications of this decision are broad and far-reaching.
After the priest-abuse scandal, many state legislators proposed changes to their statutes of limitations with hopes of retroactively prosecuting sexually abusive clergy. President Bush's proposed $1-billion DNA initiative, which promises to eliminate the backlog of thousands of unanalyzed crime scene DNA samples, is going to be affected by this decision as well; prosecution of many of the DNA-solved cases may be blocked. The high court's decision may also hamper the Justice Department's prosecution of terrorists under the USA Patriot Act, which eliminated the statute of limitations for terrorist crimes and applied that retroactively to older cases.
Murder and treason have no statute of limitations, and no one considers that unfair. It makes plenty of sense not to burden prosecutors with retroactive prosecution of minor crimes, but it is unjust not to retroactively prosecute child molesters and rapists in every state.
The "right" of convicted and confessed child molesters to escape justice forever because they escaped justice for a while is not greater than the right to justice for victims of childhood sexual abuse.
Laura A. Ahearn, executive director of Parents for Megan's Law and the Megan's Law Childhood Sexual Abuse Prevention and Treatment Center in New York, is author of "Megan's Law Nationwide" (Prevention Press, 2001).
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