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  Accusers Hold Fate of Charges against Priest

By Robert Digitale
Press Democrat
November 22, 1996

Sonoma County District Attorney Mike Mullins said Thursday he wants to meet with the three men accusing the Rev. Vincent O'Neill of molesting them as teenage boys to determine whether he could pursue a criminal prosecution against the Catholic priest.

The men's attorney, Michael Meadows of Walnut Creek, said Thursday the three have yet to decide whether to press charges against O'Neill, 51, a North Coast priest for 25 years who in September was removed from his position as pastor of Our Lady of Guadalupe Church in Windsor.

One reason for the men's uncertainty is they want, if possible, to remain anonymous, Meadows said. Moreover, Meadows said he doubts the courts would ultimately convict O'Neill because of constitutional issues involving the length of time since the alleged incidents occurred.

Unless the three men step forward, Mullins said, the law prevents him from initiating a criminal investigation for this type of case. He cited a recent appellate court case that overturned a conviction because the victim wasn't the one who reported the crime to police.

An attorney for the Catholic Church confirmed this week that Santa Rosa Bishop Patrick Ziemann placed O'Neill on administrative leave and began an investigation into the allegations two months ago. Church members learned of the accusations when they became public this week.

O'Neill's three accusers say they were altar boys in the late 1970s when the priest first molested them. Meadows has not provided details of the alleged molestations but said they were "extremely serious and occurred over a long period of time."

O'Neill has yet to respond publicly to the charges. Church officials have declined to say where he is.

O'Neill is the fourth North Coast priest in the past two years to be accused of molesting teen-age boys. The church has paid more than $2 million in settlements to the victims.

Both Meadows and church attorney Paul Gaspari have said they are trying to resolve the accusations against O'Neill without legal action. Meanwhile, Meadows and his clients are deciding whether there is any value in pursuing a criminal case.

"If it was going to lead to a successful prosecution, they'd come forward in a minute," Meadows said of his clients.

But he said he doubts that would happen, partly because prosecution would rely on a change in the statute of limitations for child molestations that was made after the alleged incidents took place.

The limit for prosecution used to be six years from the date of the crime. The Legislature since passed a law, which takes effect in January, that would retroactively remove the time limit in certain cases. But Meadows maintains the appellate courts ultimately will reject the law on constitutional grounds.

Mullins acknowledged the state Supreme Court has yet to rule on the law. But the district attorney still wants to hear the three men's stories, partly because it remains difficult to analyze how the courts might rule without first knowing the facts of their cases.

"If given the opportunity, I would appreciate a discussion with them," Mullins said. "I would sit down and talk with them personally about these issues."

The statute of limitations issue also arose in the prosecution of former North Coast priest Gary Timmons, Mullins said. But it didn't stop prosecutors from charging Timmons for offenses that police said occurred two decades before. A Sonoma County judge eventually threw out those charges. But in the meantime, other victims came forward and Timmons pleaded no contest to two sexual misconduct charges that occurred within the six-year statute of limitations. Timmons was sentenced in September to eight years in prison.

Mullins said under the new molestation law, the victim must initiate the criminal proceedings. He cited a state appellate ruling in August in which the judges threw out molestation charges against a man because his estranged wife -and not the victim -- reported the matter to police.

Mullins said Meadows and his staff have traded phone messages but have yet to discuss a meeting between prosecutors and the three men.

"I would like the opportunity to discuss the pros and cons of coming forward," Mullins said.

 
 

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