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  Ex-Bishop Faces 4th Accusation
Police Investigation Begins after Church Turns over First Complaint by a Minor

By Peter Franceschina
Sun-Sentinel (Fort Lauderdale, FL)
April 19, 2002

Palm Beach Gardens police are investigating the first sexual complaint of abuse of a minor by a priest since the Diocese of Palm Beach was created in 1984, allegations that a teenage girl was abused from 1979 through the mid-1980s at St. Ignatius Loyola Cathedral, according to documents made public Thursday.

The girl's mother brought the complaint to interim diocese leader James Murtagh on April 5, the day after her daughter first told her about the alleged abuse, according to an April 10 letter diocese attorney C. Brooks Ricca Jr. faxed to Palm Beach County State Attorney Barry Krischer.

The diocese wanted the complaint investigated and the alleged victim's family to know action was being taken swiftly by the appropriate authorities, according to the two-page letter. Because the allegations are so old, it is likely that prosecutors would only be able to file charges if there is evidence of sexual battery on a child under 12. The letter does not specify the type of sexual abuse except to say the girl's mother reported her daughter was "molested."

Krischer immediately forwarded the diocese's letter to Palm Beach Gardens police to investigate, and police released a copy of the letter on Thursday with the name of the alleged victim and other identifying information blacked out. Under Florida law, the names of alleged victims of sexual assault are not public.

The letter identifies the accused priest as the Rev. Frank Flynn, 69, who once was the pastor of St. Ignatius Loyola and is now listed in the diocese's official directory as retired and living in Ireland. He could not be located for comment.

Diocese spokesman Sam Barbero said officials would not comment on the allegations until police complete their investigation, and he declined to provide any information about Flynn's tenure with the church.

Flynn was accused of having affairs with several women during his time with the diocese, including one woman whom he allegedly seduced the night before her father's funeral, according to West Palm Beach attorney and church patron Edward Ricci, who has been a vocal critic of the diocese's handling of Flynn.

Church awaits results

A church directory shows he was still pastor of St. Ignatius Loyola in 1988 but was placed on "sick leave" in 1989 and 1990. Directories show from 1991 to 1997 he was at Sacred Heart in Lake Worth, and he is listed as retired in 1998.

Ricca's letter makes it clear, though, that Murtagh -- who has led the diocese since former Bishop Anthony O'Connell resigned March 8 after a former seminary student accused him of sexual abuse 25 years ago -- plans to investigate Flynn when the police investigation is complete. He is waiting, according to Ricca's letter, so that the diocese's review and any action it might take against Flynn do not interfere with the police investigation.

"To our knowledge, this is the first reported claim of sexual abuse of a minor by a member of the clergy during the existence of the Palm Beach diocese," Ricca wrote to Krischer. "Father Murtagh is adamant that swift action be taken, but I will only proceed after you give the green light."

Interview planned

The police investigation is just getting under way. The alleged victim lives in Florida but not in Palm Beach County, and investigators are now arranging to interview her, said Police Maj. Robert Artola.

"It is in the early stages right now," he said. "We are trying to set up an interview with her, and they are trying to do it sometime by the end of next week. That is when we are going to get the meat of the information."

As a sexual abuse scandal in the Catholic Church has spread across the country, prosecuting attorneys have asked numerous dioceses to turn over files relating to priests accused of abuse. Several prosecutors have said those cases of abuse are too old to prosecute because of the statutes of limitations, which vary from state to state. That may be the situation involving the allegations against Flynn, even if police and prosecutors find they have enough evidence to support any charges.

"We don't know if the statute of limitations is going to be a factor. The letter says she was a teenager, but we have to determine her age now," Artola said.

The diocese letter says the alleged abuse took place between 1979 and 1986. The woman's age during that time is key to whether possible criminal charges could be filed.

In Florida, a person who assaults a child under the age of 12 can be charged at any time with the most serious form of sexual battery, which is punishable only by life in prison. Like murder, that charge carries no statute of limitations. It is the only form of sexual battery in Florida that carries no statute of limitations.

Someone who sexually assaults a person 12 or older can be charged with the crime up to four years after the victim turns 18 or the abuse is reported to law enforcement. Fondling charges can only be brought within three years.

Old cases pose problems

"If the statute of limitations has run, our end is pretty much closed," Artola said. "One thing we will be asking the victim about is other potential victims."

Palm Beach County State Attorney's Office spokesman Michael Edmondson said prosecutors will review the police investigation and the statute of limitations to determine whether any charges will be filed. He said old cases can pose problems. "They are difficult to investigate and to ultimately prosecute," he said.

Krischer wrote a cover letter to Palm Beach Gardens Police Chief James Fitzgerald, asking that the allegations be investigated no differently than any other case. "I think it is imperative that this matter be handled in the ordinary course, and in the same fashion as all other investigations and prosecutions, lest there be an allegation of prosecutorial vindictiveness," Krischer wrote.

The statute of limitations for sexual battery is designed to give children and minors time to make the complaint, said Connie Pence Galietti, staff attorney for the Florida Prosecuting Attorneys Association.

But, she said, "In sexual abuse cases, especially with children, most times there is no disclosure until they are adults, for a variety of reasons. Many of these cases do not get reported until there is some kind of triggering event."

While some prosecutors and legislators in other states are calling for more relaxed statutes of limitations involving the sexual abuse of minors, that is not happening in Florida, said Jerry Blair, the state attorney for the 3rd Judicial Circuit in North Florida and the president of the Florida Prosecuting Attorneys Association.

"I am not aware of any real move to amend the statute of limitation in light of the revelations coming out of the Catholic Church," he said. "I can assure you as a prosecutor I have no desire to prosecute a case that is 20 years old. Criminal cases are not like wine, they don't get better with age. To the contrary, they are much more difficult to prosecute. While as a prosecutor I have great empathy and sympathy for this kind of abuse and have no problems with a relaxed statute of limitations, at some point in time you have to draw the line on crimes short of a capital crime."

 
 

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