KC Priests Could Face Criminal Charges:
Ruling Opens Door in Older Abuse Cases

By Kevin Murphy
The Kansas City Star [Kansas City MO]
July 19, 2004

Hoping to overcome statute-of-limitations obstacles, families of alleged victims of sexual abuse will ask prosecutors to consider criminal charges against Kansas City priests.

A meeting is planned to review evidence and witnesses, said Jenni Vincent of the Jackson County prosecutor's sex crimes and child abuse unit.

The Eastern District of the Missouri Court of Appeals recently ruled that a St. Louis priest can be charged in a forced-sodomy case from the 1970s because at that time there was no statute of limitations on the crime.

Vincent said she agreed with the ruling and that her office had always held that there was no statute of limitations in sodomy and rape cases before the law changed in 1979. Even cases after 1979 carry no statute of limitations under certain conditions, she said.

“In our minds, the court did the right thing,” Vincent said. She said the ruling, if upheld on the expected appeal, would deter defendants from trying to block future cases based on statute-of-limitation arguments.

Vincent said people commonly approach prosecutors seeking charges in incidents that occurred 15 or 20 years ago. But the circumstance of the crime and the evidence determine whether there is no statute of limitations, she said. A man is on trial in Jackson County on a 1987 rape charge, she noted.

In the past year five former Kansas City priests have been sued by persons who say they were sodomized, raped or otherwise sexually abused as children in the 1960s, '70s and '80s.

Vincent said several of those plaintiffs also are seeking criminal charges, though she did not identify them.

Although the plaintiffs are seeking monetary damages in their civil lawsuits, their attorney said her clients are more interested in seeing the alleged perpetrators jailed.

“They would like to see a real form of justice, one that is more tangible,” Rebecca Randles said.

Randles said she was encouraged by the July 6 appeals court ruling and plans to meet with more clients about pursuing criminal charges.

In December 2002, a grand jury indicted retired St. Louis priest Thomas Graham, alleging he performed oral sex on a teenage boy at the rectory of the city's Old Cathedral between 1975 and 1978.

Graham pleaded not guilty and asked that the charges be dismissed based on a three-year statute of limitations. But the appeals court held that the law before 1979 had no statute of limitations on crimes punishable by up to life in prison, which then applied to sodomy.

As a result, charges filed against Graham will go forward, pending his appeal for a new hearing or referral to the state Supreme Court.

Graham's attorney, Art Margulis, said the case lacked witnesses. The bishop overseeing the church is dead, and the rectory's housekeeper has dementia, he said.

“I think that pretty vividly illustrates why we have statutes of limitations,” Margulis said.

But the St. Louis circuit attorney's office convinced the appeals court that the statute of limitations did not apply in the mid-1970s case. The ruling could lead to other cases being pursued, Assistant Circuit Attorney Edmund Postawko said.

“It certainly opens a door we thought was closed,” Postawko said.

David Clohessy, national director of the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests, said a long time frame does not necessarily weaken abuse cases. He said physical evidence often is lacking no matter how old the case and that there still can be witnesses who testified to similar abuses many years later.

“It changes nothing about rules of evidence, burden of proof or presumption of innocence,” Clohessy said. “Around the country, prosecutors are being more aggressive and creative, and more judges are being receptive to arguments that overcome these archaic and arbitrary limits.”

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