First-Time Offenders Entitled to Diversion Program

By Stephan Passalacqua
Petaluma Argus Courier [California]
November 29, 2006

Emotions run high in the area of child sexual abuse, particularly when committed by those who abuse positions of trust. The Sonoma County District Attorney's Office takes its responsibility seriously to ensure that these cases are reported promptly so that we may take immediate action to bring the perpetrators to justice. Under California's child abuse mandated reporting law, failure to report suspected cases of abuse is a misdemeanor.

The intent of the mandated reporting law is to protect the most vulnerable members of our community, our children. Immediately reporting suspected abuse allows law enforcement to take swift measures to apprehend the perpetrators and ensure the safety of any child at risk.

In these cases, there is an urgency that will never be compromised.

That is why the Sonoma County District Attorney's Office has acted decisively to hold Bishop Daniel Walsh accountable for violating the law. Consistent with past practice, and as has been the case this year with more than 1,000 people facing misdemeanor charges, Bishop Walsh is eligible to take part in what is known as a pre-filing diversion program. If he does not successfully complete this rigorous four-month program, the misdemeanor charge for failing to report suspected child abuse will automatically be filed.

California law provides that a first-time offender diversion program may be established in any county. Sonoma County has had its program since 1995, run by the California Human Develop-ment Corporation. This program holds accused violators accountable for their actions, it has a high success rate, and it is widely respected throughout the judicial system as an efficient and effective way to address first-time offenders. Bishop Walsh is entitled to participate and receive the same treatment as anyone else. No better, no worse.

All clergy members are subject to the same laws as other mandated reporters, such as doctors, nurses, teachers and social workers. The Diocese of Santa Rosa has received specific training on the mandated reporting laws, and even established their own protocol reinforcing the law's requirements. Bishop Walsh should have immediately reported suspected child abuse by Francisco Ochoa. Walsh, himself, subsequently admitted he should not have delayed reporting. We are holding him accountable for that delay.

As an elected district attorney, I am charged with seeking justice. My office works aggressively to hold the guilty accountable, protect the innocent, and treat victims and their families with respect and dignity. We also have a responsibility to be objective and fair in carrying out our duty to enforce the law. When we received the reports involving Francisco Ochoa, we immediately filed felony counts of child molestation. When notified that there may have been a violation of the mandated reporting laws, we asked the Sheriff's Department to conduct a separate investigation. Our resolve was unambiguous and unwavering.

We are committed to doing everything possible to protect children from becoming victims of abuse and the mandated reporting law is an important tool to achieve that goal. We hope that this case will raise public awareness so that all mandated reporters will honor their duty and act immediately on behalf of our children.

(Stephan Passalacqua is the Sonoma County district attorney.)


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