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  No Jobs Waiting for Pedophile Priests
Catholic Leaders Say 'Zero-Tolerance' Rules Will Keep Sex Abusers out of Parishes

By Elizabeth Fernandez efernandez@sfchronicle.com, Don Lattin dlattin@sfchronicle.com
San Francisco Chronicle [California]
Downloaded June 27, 2003

Catholic Church leaders in California assured the faithful Thursday that the Supreme Court decision tossing out old child abuse cases does not mean pedophile priests will return to parish ministry.

Officials with the Roman Catholic Church said the so-called zero-tolerance rules adopted last year by the U.S. bishops would still keep priestly abusers away from children.

Nevertheless, the 5-4 high court ruling means that at least four of San Francisco's most notorious pedophile priests -- including Monsignor Patrick O'Shea and the Rev. Austin Peter Keegan -- will probably be released from custody, and at least a dozen other accused Bay Area priests are now off the criminal hook.

Erin Gallagher, lead investigator on clergy sexual abuse for the San Francisco district attorney's office, spent much of Thursday notifying her roster of alleged victims that their cases would most likely be dismissed.

"I'm sad for the message it sends," said Gallagher. "It took a lot of guts for victims to come forward. They were so hopeful that finally, after all these years, these priests, these child molesters, were finally going to court,

finally justice would reign."

Assistant District Attorney Elliot Beckelman said that in all probability the cases would be dismissed and that the clergymen would be released.

Terrie Light, a Bay Area leader of SNAP, the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, said the high court's decision "is a victory for child molesters and those who shelter them."

"People are devastated," Light said. "This is horrible, horrible news. A lot of people have waited a long time for justice. Victims had hoped for their day in court. Now, they will not only never get that, but their perpetrators will go free. They will never be held accountable for all the damage they've done."

Sharan Falotico, 53, a Bay Area resident who said she had repeatedly been raped at age 13 by a priest in Ohio, was appalled by the high court decision.

"I'm sure the bishops are hooting and hollering in joy," said Falotico, who said she had spent nine months in a psychiatric hospital and undergone years of therapy. "This feels like survivors are being re-abused by the government. The courts were the place we went to for justice -- and now the Supreme Court has turned on us. It almost feels like God has turned on us."

Church leaders stressed that they continued to be concerned about victims and would not waiver in their efforts to protect children and teenagers.

In Sacramento, the organization representing the state's 12 Roman Catholic dioceses issued a statement promising that "we bishops will not let this judgment of the court diminish our moral obligation to help victims of any age and ensure the safety of our youth."

Sister Barbara Flannery, the chancellor of the Diocese of Oakland, said she was "terribly disappointed" by the court action.

"I have listened to the horrendous stories of victims and know how lives have been destroyed," she said. "We won't change our reporting. If we learn of old cases, we will continue to report them to authorities."

Flannery said the Oakland diocese, which includes all of Alameda and Contra Costa counties, said the ruling affected the cases of four accused priests in her jurisdiction.

Other church leaders said the rights of the accused, as well as the victims,

must be protected.

Maurice Healy, the spokesman for the San Francisco Archdiocese, called the court's action "a difficult decision."

"When it comes to serial abuses, we share the despair of victims," Healy said. "But where the evidence is nebulous, the decision may be viewed differently by some."

To attorneys for the accused, the case was about the constitutional rights of all criminal defendants, including priests.

San Francisco lawyer Jim Collins, who represents O'Shea and three other accused priests in San Francisco and Marin counties, called the Supreme Court action "fair and right."

"When you have a statute that expires and you allow the government to go back and re-institute that crime, that makes an oppressive and unjust government," Collins said.

Others noted that the church must care for victims and help problem priests so they wouldn't continue to abuse.

The Rev. Robert Silva, executive director of the National Federation of Priests' Councils, said that while his "first concern is for people who have been abused, we do concur with the Supreme Court decision."

"This does not mean that offender priests will be back in ministry," he said. "But applying a law retroactively is difficult. Witnesses die. Memories get confused over the years. Facts get jumbled."

Silva also said the church should continue to care for many pedophile priests who escape criminal prosecution.

"If you just defrock them and send them out on the street without any supervision," he said, "the stresses and mental strain create conditions that cause them to offend again."

E-mail the authors at dlattin@sfchronicle.com and efernandez@sfchronicle.com.

 
 

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