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  Judge Finds Enough Evidence to Try Priest for Abuse

By Con Garretson
Marin Independent Journal (Marin, CA)
June 10, 2003

There is enough evidence to warrant a child molestation trial for a Catholic priest accused of repeatedly fondling a Novato altar boy during a visit to the defendant's former parish 19 years ago, a Marin Superior Court judge found yesterday.

The Rev. Milton Thomas Walsh was ordered to return to Judge William McGivern's courtroom on July 1 to set a trial date. However, outside of court, his attorney said he would consider entering a plea deal if the U.S. Supreme Court has not rendered a decision in the interim making the scheduled proceeding moot.

Walsh, 50, is charged with two counts of molesting a child under age 14, felonies that carry a maximum 10-year prison sentence.

"I would hope that a punishment could be fashioned that addresses the seriousness of the crime but also takes into account all the things he's done right and how he's helped the communities where he's worked," Emeryville defense attorney Cristina Arguedas said after yesterday's preliminary hearing. "What more can you do than what he's done to take responsibility? He's repentant and said he wants to make amends."

Arguedas was referring to statements Walsh made in a phone call to the alleged victim last year that were secretly recorded by Novato police.

During the approximately 15-minute conversation played in court, Walsh seemingly acknowledges several times that he touched the former altar boy inappropriately.

The defendant said he immediately reported the most serious incident to church officials shortly after it happened, that he received professional counseling as a result and that his subsequent assignments were designed to avoid the "temptations" of being around other children, according to the taped evidence.

"You were taken advantage of, there's no question of that, and for that I'm very sorry," Walsh told the reported victim in the recorded call.

Later in the call, Walsh encouraged the caller to seek counseling and answer truthfully any questions asked of him by prosecutors or police.

Novato police Detective Rick Berndt said the alleged victim reported Walsh touched his genitals and buttocks over his swimming suit more than 20 times in the pool of the Rolling Hill Country Club in Novato in the months prior to his 13th birthday.

On his birthday in the summer of 1984, Walsh reportedly was touching the boy's genitals in the club's shower room until the boy's father walked in.

Later that same night, after drinking during the boy's birthday party, the defendant stayed in the alleged victim's room and during the night allegedly crawled down from the top bunk and continued touching the boy.

Walsh said on the tape he never touched any other children and Berndt testified that no one else has reported being victimized by Walsh since his case has been publicized.

At the time of the alleged crimes, Walsh was on a break from his doctoral studies in Rome and had returned to the Our Lady of Loretto parish.

He went on to serve as pastor of St. Mary's Cathedral in San Francisco from 1989 to 1997 and last August resigned from a teaching position at St. Patrick's Seminary in Menlo Park.

Arguedas noted the alleged victim initially failed to report to police that the priest stopped the alleged criminal behavior after being asked.

Police were also not aware that Walsh made a tearful apology to the reported victim after he sought him out at age 19 until the defendant referred to the encounter in the phone conversation, she said.

Walsh is being charged under a California law that allows child molestation cases to be prosecuted after the normal legal deadline if the alleged crimes were said to involve "substantial sexual conduct" and if a suspect is charged within one year after the allegations are reported to police.

The alleged victim in this case, who was 12 and 13 during the period in question, contacted Novato police in May 2002 and Walsh was charged by the district attorney's office last October.

The U.S. Supreme Court is expected to render a decision this month on the constitutionality of the California law based on an appeal of a Contra Costa County case.

Critics of the law say it violates the Constitution's ex post facto clause, meaning that defendants like Walsh are being charged for acts said to have occurred before the 1994 law was conceived and enacted.

Walsh, who is on paid administrative leave from the church, remains free on $100,000 bail.

San Francisco Archdiocese spokesman Maurice Healy said Walsh is being kept from performing certain religious duties until his case is adjudicated. At that time, an internal determination will be made about whether any possible sanctions may be appropriate for him, up to and including his being removed from the priesthood.

 
 

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