Court Again Says Priest Can Be Charged in 1970s Case

By Jim Suhr
Associated Press, carried in Post-Dispatch [Louis MO]
September 28, 2004

A Missouri appeals court Tuesday affirmed its stance that no time limit applies to prosecuting someone for sodomy, upholding its ruling in the case of a Roman Catholic priest accused of child sex abuse during the 1970s.

Given the latest 3-0 ruling by the Missouri Court of Appeals, the Rev. Thomas Graham's attorney plans to ask the Missouri Supreme Court to take up what he called a potential watershed case "of profound significance."

"My understanding is that there are several prosecuting jurisdictions throughout Missouri who've been sitting on their cases (involving suspected clergy abuse), awaiting a ruling on this," Art Margulis said.

An assistant St. Louis city prosecutor who heads the office's child sex abuse unit refused to speculate on whether the ruling, if upheld, would spur more prosecutions involving sexual abuse by clergy.

"I don't like to play fortune teller," said Ed Postawko, adding that he has fielded inquiries from prosecutors elsewhere in Missouri about the issue. "Just because (this legal) hurdle has been overcome, I don't know if it's going to open the floodgates" of prosecutions.

The appeals court in July reversed a St. Louis circuit judge who ruled that too much time had passed for Graham to be charged with the crime. When Margulis asked the appeals court to reconsider, the panel again ruled Tuesday in the state's favor, declaring that no statute of limitations applied for prosecution of crimes -- including sodomy -- punishable under Missouri law by death or life imprisonment.

Graham, now 70, was indicted in December 2002 on a charge of performing oral sex on a teenage boy, allegedly between January 1975 and December 1978, in the rectory of the historic Old Cathedral in downtown St. Louis. He was released on bond.

Margulis said it was unfair to charge a person in such cases so many years memories fade over time.

He called the Graham case "a classic example of why there are statutes of limitations" -- the rectory's housekeeper at the time of the alleged crimes now has dementia, and the bishop there during the period in question has died.

Said the appeals court: "We are mindful of the purposes of statutes of limitations, not the least of which are to protect individuals from having to defend themselves against charges where the passage of time may have obscured the facts and to minimize the threat of official punishment because of acts committed in the distant past."

But as some higher courts have found, "the possible prejudice that is inherent in any delay may also serve to weaken the prosecution's case." The appeals court dismissed a defense argument that focused on the meaning of a state law saying there is no limit for filing charges for crimes punishable "with death or by imprisonment in the penitentiary during life."

Defense attorneys argued that phrase means there is no time limit for crimes that strictly have a punishment of death or life in prison, and that does not apply to crimes such as sodomy that carry potentially shorter sentences.

The penalty for sodomy is "open-ended," carrying a term of up to life, and so has no limitation, the three-judge panel said.

The Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests, an advocacy group, cheered the latest ruling, saying in a statement that "we are thrilled that at least a few of the dozens of abusive clergy who so severely harmed kids may finally face justice."


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