Law May Permit Trial of Priest in Sex Abuse Case
S.F. Asks State's Advice on Exemption to Statut
By Don Lattin
San Francisco Chronicle
April 28, 1994
The fate of a prominent San Francisco priest accused of child sex abuse hinges on an upcoming opinion from the state attorney general.
At issue is whether Monsignor Patrick J. O'Shea can be criminally charged under a sex-crimes law that went on the books January 1.
The law provides an exemption to a six-year statute of limitations that has kept even confessed child molesters — including other San Francisco priests — from serving long prison sentences in California.
Under the new law, a person of any age may come to police and lodge a complaint of sexual abuse that occurred when the complainant was under 18 years of age.
Prosecutors then have one year to file charges, but only if there is "independent evidence that clearly and convincingly corroborates the victim's allegation" and if the crime "involved substantial sexual conduct."
O'Shea, pastor of St. Cecilia's Catholic Church in the Parkside district, has been on "administrative leave" while police investigate recent allegations that O'Shea sexually abused teenagers and young boys during the 1970s and early 1980s.
Yesterday, District Attorney Arlo Smith sent a letter to Attorney General Dan Lungren asking for an opinion on whether the new law can be applied to cases of alleged abuse that occurred before the law took effect and that fall outside the statute of limitations.
"We are currently considering the possible prosecution of an individual for the molestation of 11 separate minor victims," Smith wrote. "The molestations occurred in four separate California counties (Napa, San Francisco, Riverside and El Dorado), and they occurred on numerous occasions from the years 1964 through 1982."
Sources close to the O'Shea investigation say victims have told police that the sex abuse included acts such as fondling and oral sex.
"As a Catholic, I feel awful about this," said one law enforcement source close to the case. "They (the investigators) are interviewing every single altar boy who was ever under this guy, but the most recent cases are from the early '80s. There are at least two or three who were more than merely fondled. Some have talked, but most of these guys don't want to talk about it."
Victims have told police that O'Shea molested at least eight boys during overnight waterskiing trips to Lake Berryessa in Napa County in the mid-1970s.
O'Shea has declined to comment on the allegations.
Archdiocesan spokesman Bill Mitchell said yesterday that O'Shea is continuing to undergo "a psychological assessment" that will be used to determine his "long-term disposition as a priest."
The main question facing both Smith and Napa Valley District Attorney Anthony Perez is whether the new law can be applied to old molestation cases where the statute of limitations already has expired.
"It's a very clouded issue," said Smith. "Did the Legislature intend for this law to be applied retroactively? And even if they did, is it unconstitutional to apply the law retroactively?"
According to one source, the last solid case that police have occurred in 1982. "It continued later with some victims, but they were past the age of 18, so you're talking about a different ballgame," the source said.
Meanwhile, police and prosecutors say the six-year statute of limitations has thwarted their investigations of other priests.
YOUTH MINISTER CASE
In a case first reported by The Chronicle in 1989, Brother Salvadore Billante was charged with sexually abusing two boys at Camp Salesian in Lake County. "Brother Sal," a member of the Salesian religious order, worked for 25 years as a youth minister at Corpus Christi Church in San Francisco's Excelsior district.
Inspector Bruce Frediani, who handled the Billante case, said he believes the molestations occurred over a 20-year period. Frediani said he was able to identify 25 boys and men who were molested by the Salesian brother during that time.
Frediani said more counts would have been brought against Billante if the statute of limitations had not run out.
Billante pleaded guilty to one count of lewd and lascivious acts with a boy under the age of 14 and was sentenced to eight years in prison. In a plea bargain, the second count of similar acts with another boy was dismissed.
In December, after serving half of his sentence, Billante was released on parole from San Quentin Prison.
Civil suits seeking monetary damages have been filed against Billante, the Salesians and the San Francisco Archdiocese.
$ 1 MILLION IN CLAIMS
Judging from only a handful of cases in which settlements were reported by the court, it appears that the San Francisco Archdiocese and its priests have paid out at least $ 1 million in child sex abuse claims during the past decade.
A review of San Francisco Superior Court records reveals at least 10 cases in the past decade involving sex abuse charges — six of them involving Salvadore Billante — filed locally against the Roman Catholic Church.
Settlements in two of the 10 cases totaled $ 405,000. Other cases are still pending or were settled for unspecified amounts.
Three years before the "Brother Sal" case, a Marin County priest, the Rev. Arthur Manuel Cunha, associate pastor of Our Lady of Loretto parish in Novato, pleaded guilty to molesting two boys at the church.
Cunha was sentenced to 60 days in the Marin County jail and four months at a counseling center.
Three lawsuits came out of the Cunha case, including one that was settled for $ 640,000.
Meanwhile, a trial is scheduled to begin this summer in a molestation case brought on behalf of a sixth-grade girl who was attending school at St. Dominic's parish in San Francisco in 1988 and '89.
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