Priest in Court on Sex Charge
S.F. Police Chaplain Accused of Molestation

By Jaxon Van Derbeken
San Francisco Chronicle
January 30, 2003

Monsignor John Heaney spent 30 years ministering to San Francisco cops. On Wednesday, 100 or so members of that flock stood behind him as Heaney appeared in an orange jail jumpsuit to answer allegations that he molested a boy more than 40 years ago.

Disheveled and unshaven, the 75-year-old retired Catholic priest said nothing as he was arraigned before San Francisco Superior Court Judge Kay Tsenin.

Heaney's attorney, Jim Collins, entered a not guilty plea on his behalf and asked Tsenin to release him on his own recognizance. Tsenin refused but did lower bail to $150,000 from $800,000.

Heaney, senior chaplain to the San Francisco Police Department for more than three decades, faces eight felony counts accusing him of molesting a boy over more than two years, starting when the child was 7 years old in September 1961.

The boy turned 8 later that month. The alleged molestations stopped around the time the boy turned 10, prosecutors say.

The man's two brothers are corroborating witnesses, prosecutors said. One of the brothers was himself molested, but prosecutors decided their case would be stronger without bringing those charges.

The alleged victim is now 49 years old. Neither he nor his brothers were identified in court filings.

Collins argued that Heaney's years of service to the Police Department, and the fact he recently suffered a stroke, meant he was not a flight risk and should be released without having to post bail.

"This courtroom is full of former police officers, firefighters, homicide investigators and a deputy chief of police," Collins told Tsenin, pointing to a gallery that included Deputy Chief Greg Suhr. "We owe (Heaney) something. We absolutely owe him something."

While no one in the crowd was called on to speak, at one point there were shouts of "Here, here!" when Collins asked who would vouch for Heaney's appearances at future court dates.

In court papers, Collins said Heaney had been in contact with some 10,000 children since 1963 without any reported incidents. He was awarded the Police Department medal of valor for his help in a hostage situation, founded the SFPD's stress unit and most recently helped in the search for survivors at New York's World Trade Center after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

Collins said Heaney was supported by Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., former Police Chiefs Fred Lau, Anthony Ribera and Con Murphy, and Suhr and Assistant Chief Alex Fagan.

It is unusual for Police Department brass to vouch for someone whose arrest resulted from an investigation handled by the department, in this case the juvenile division.

Fagan said later that Heaney had helped him after he was injured falling through a skylight while on duty. "The guy's always been there for us," Fagan said, adding that the fact that the criminal case is going forward "shows how fair and impartial we are."

Feinstein, Collins said in court papers, "has asked me to represent to the court that she has known Monsignor Heaney for 25 years and that he has always been there for this city in any time of crisis. . . . It is her opinion that his dedication to the city of San Francisco as well as his good character ensures he is not a flight risk."

Feinstein's office confirmed that she had vouched for him. "Sen. Feinstein has known Father Heaney since she was mayor," spokesman Howard Gantman said. "She doesn't think he's going to be any kind of flight risk."

Prosecutors acknowledged that Heaney had done good work in the community, but argued that the gravity of the charges justified higher bail.

Priests are often widely admired, prosecutor Elliot Beckelman said, leaving institutions paralyzed to act in the face of child molestation allegations.

"Your honor can just look up from the bench there and look into the courtroom to see what children must go through in order to make a disclosure," Beckelman said. "They would be bringing to shame and embarrassment to members of their own family and members of the church, members of the community and, I dare say . . . a U.S senator.

"This is what children often have to face."

In the end, Tsenin lowered Heaney's bail to $150,000, saying that while she did not see him as a flight risk or a danger to society, the charges "do have to count for something."

Collins said he expected Heaney to post bail quickly.

The defense attorney also told Tsenin that even if Heaney was convicted, he was likely to be sentenced only to probation based on the laws on the books at the time the alleged molestations occurred.

Prosecutors brought the charges against Heaney under a state law that gives authorities one year to bring a case from the day an alleged victim contacts them, no matter when the accusations date from. In this case, the allegations came to light in July 2002.

Collins noted that the U.S. Supreme Court was set to hear oral arguments in March on the constitutionality of allowing molestation offenses to be charged well after the original statute of limitations has lapsed.


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