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  Some Molesters to Go Free
Old Cases: Abuse Law Struck down

By Brandon Bailey and Elise Banducci
San Jose Mercury News
June 27, 2003

Authorities dismissed the first of hundreds of child molestation cases Thursday, hours after the U.S. Supreme Court overturned part of a California law that allowed prosecutors to bring charges for abuse years after it occurred.

In ruling that the 1994 law could not be applied retroactively, the nation's highest court effectively annulled hundreds of cases around the state, including numerous convictions and dozens of high-profile charges that have been brought against Roman Catholic priests in the past year.

Prosecutors said 75 to 100 Santa Clara County cases were brought under the law, but it is unclear how many pending cases will have to be dismissed or convicted felons will have to be freed.

The court's 5-4 ruling was condemned by state prosecutors and left some molestation victims in tears, even as it drew praise from defense attorneys who said the court had protected an important constitutional right for anyone accused of a crime.

"What's heartbreaking is we've got to pick up the phone and try to let the victims know before they read it in the newspaper," said Karyn Sinunu, assistant district attorney for Santa Clara County.

Sinunu said her office dismissed charges in at least eight cases Thursday. Two involved defendants who had already pleaded guilty. Another involved a former Jesuit brother, Wellington Stanislaus, who was accused of molesting a resident of a Los Gatos home for wayward boys in 1969.

"It's so hard to explain this to people who finally felt there would be justice, that these men would serve time behind bars, and that kids would be safe," added Terrie Light, the Bay Area coordinator for a group that supports victims of abuse by clergy.

Defense lawyers cheer

But defense attorneys said the court's decision was a victory for fair treatment under the law.

"For more than 200 years, since our country was founded, a law like this has never been upheld," said Jeff Fisher, an attorney with the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers.

"It really struck me as being fundamentally unfair to pretend the statute of limitations never existed," added Roberto Najera, the lawyer for a child molestation suspect in Contra Costa County, who appealed his client's case to the Supreme Court.

At issue was a 1994 state law that removed the traditional statute of limitations for several types of sexual offenses against children. Since it was enacted, state officials say, the law has been used to prosecute more than 800 people for molestations that allegedly occurred many years or even decades earlier.

But the high court, in an opinion written by Justice Stephen Breyer, said it was unfair for the state to apply the law retroactively to cases in which the statute of limitations had expired before the law was enacted.

By rejecting California's attempt to retroactively extend the statute of limitations for such cases, the ruling also may block federal efforts to expand prosecutions under anti-terrorism laws. The U.S. Justice Department had argued that the case could affect sections of the USA Patriot Act, which eliminated the statute of limitations for some offenses.

Under the constitutional ban on ex post facto laws, the court majority said, the government cannot enact a law that would punish someone for an act that was not subject to punishment at the time the law was passed.

Najera's client, Marion Stogner of Antioch, is a 75-year-old retiree who was charged in 1998 with molesting his daughters in the 1950s and 1960s. Theallegations surfaced after authorities began investigating other members of his family on separate molestation charges.

The statute of limitations for most crimes in California is three to six years, depending on the offense, which means that charges cannot be brought after that time. There is no statute of limitations for murder.

But experts say child abuse often goes unreported for years or even decades because children may be too afraid or confused to tell anyone about it until years after the fact -- often after they have become adults.

In response to that argument, state lawmakers enacted a measure in 1994 that said certain offenses against children can be prosecuted at any time, provided that charges are filed within one year after the alleged abuse is reported to police. A later amendment allowed prosecutors to apply that law retroactively to molestations that allegedly occurred at any time before the law was enacted.

Concern for justice

Some justices on the high court said they feel that is justified. In a heated dissenting opinion, Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote that it is more important to provide justice for the victims of child abuse than to allow abusers to escape prosecution because of the passage of time.

"The victims whose cause is now before the court have at least overcome shame and the desire to repress these painful memories," Kennedy wrote. "The court now tells the victims their decision to come forward is in vain."

But defense attorneys said the statute of limitations helps protect those who are wrongfully accused.

"After a certain period of time, the courts have recognized that proof of innocence becomes more difficult to obtain," said Najera, whose client had denied molesting his daughters.

"In our case, when we started doing our investigation, the neighborhood was gone, street names were changed, medical records were not available, and family members had died," Najera said. "All that stuff was just gone and there was no way to re-create it."

The ruling Thursday means prosecutors cannot bring Najera's client to trial. It also means authorities around the state will be reviewing every case brought under the 1994 law.

An unknown number of those cases may not be affected by the high court's decision. The court said it is fair to apply the 1994 law to cases in which the statute of limitations had not expired when the law was enacted. The court also said the law can be applied to molestations that occur in the future.

But authorities said that many cases will be dismissed and some convicted offenders will have to be released.

"Today's ruling will allow child molesters to escape prosecution, simply because they preyed on our children years ago," California Attorney General Bill Lockyer said in a statement.

NOTES: U.S. SUPREME COURT RULINGS

Mercury News Staff Writer John Woolfolk contributed to this report.

WHAT IT MEANS

The ruling halts dozens of cases that prosecutors have filed in the past year against Roman Catholic priests accused of abusing children. It also overturns hundreds of cases against adults who were convicted of molesting children.

In Santa Clara County, 75 to 100 cases may be affected.

HOW THEY SIDED

In a 5-4 decision, the justices struck down a California law that retroactively eliminated deadlines to file charges on some sex crimes. Here is how they split:

Majority: Justices Stephen G. Breyer, John Paul Stevens, Sandra Day O'Connor, David H. Souter and Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

Dissent: Justices Anthony M. Kennedy, William H. Rehnquist, Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas.

DECISION MAY AFFECT CLERGY CASES

The Supreme Court ruling Thursday on California's statute of limitations for child-molestation cases will affect hundreds of prosecutions, including a number of high-profile cases that were filed against Roman Catholic priests after their accusers came forward in the past year.

Some victims' advocates said they are concerned the ruling will discourage people who kept silent about abuse for years. Others said the ruling will focus more attention on a flurry of civil lawsuits that have been filed against the church; those suits are not affected by Thursday's decision.

In Santa Clara County, assistant district attorney Karyn Sinunu said charges had been dropped against former Jesuit brother, Wellington Stanislaus, who was charged in April with two felony counts of sexually abusing a 16-year-old boy in 1969.

Here are some of the criminal cases involving clergy that could be affected by Thursday's ruling:

ALAMEDA COUNTY

Rev. Robert Freitas: 57, pleaded guilty in December and was sentenced to six months in jail for molesting a teenage boy in 1979 while a priest at Santa Paula church in Fremont. A civil lawsuit alleges he molested another boy.

Stephen Kiesle: 55, charged in May 2002 with molesting five children while serving at Santa Paula Church in Fremont between 1968 and 1971; also facing charges in Contra Costa County. He left the priesthood in 1981 after beingconvicted of molesting two boys in Union City.

CONTRA COSTA COUNTY

Kiesle: charged in August with molesting an altar boy at St. Joseph Church in Pinole in 1975 and 1976.

Robert Ponciroli: 66, former priest arrested in March on charges of molesting an altar boy at St. Ignatius Church in Antioch in the late 1970s.

SAN FRANCISCO

Salvatore Billante: 63-year-old brother with the Salesian order, charged in September with molesting two boys in the 1970s while a teacher at Corpus Christi School in San Francisco.

Msgr. John Patrick Heaney: 75, former longtime chaplain with the San Francisco Police Department, charged in January with molesting two boys in the 1960s.

Austin Peter Keegan: 67, former priest charged in September with molesting two boys while serving as a priest in the 1960s; he fled to Mexico and was deported back to San Francisco in March.

Patrick O'Shea: 70, former priest and prominent San Francisco monsignor charged in March with molesting two boys in the 1970s. He also was charged in September 2002 with molesting another boy in the late 1960s.

MARIN COUNTY

Rev. Arthur Harrison: 73, charged in May with molesting a 10-year-old girl in Novato in 1961.

Rev. Gregory Ingels: 60, charged in May with molesting a 15-year-old boy in 1972. Ingels, an expert on church law, co-wrote a guidebook on implementing the U.S. bishops' new policy on sex abuse.

Jerome Leach: 52, former priest was charged in November with molesting an altar boy in the late 1970s.

Guy Murnig: 59, former priest charged in October with molesting a teenage girl in the early 1970s, when he was on the faculty of Marin Catholic High School.

Rev. Milton Walsh: 50, charged in October with molesting a 13-year-old boy in Novato in 1984. Walsh has been on leave from St. Patrick's Seminary in Menlo Park.

 
 

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