SANTA ROSA / Catholic bishop may face jail

SFGATE [San Francisco CA]

August 26, 2006

By John Coté , Chronicle Staff Writer

The Sonoma County Sheriff’s Office has recommended criminal charges be filed against Santa Rosa Bishop Daniel Walsh for failing to timely report evidence of sexual abuse by a Sonoma priest who has since fled the country.

“Based upon our investigation, the evidence indicates that this case is worthy of district attorney review,” Lt. Dave Edmonds said in a written statement released Friday. It is up to the Sonoma County district attorney’s office to decide whether it can prove Walsh broke the law and whether there is “sufficient evidence and circumstances to sustain a conviction,” Edmonds said.

District Attorney Stephan Passalacqua could not be reached for comment.

If prosecutors decide to charge Walsh, the case would appear to mark the first time a U.S. Catholic Church official has faced criminal prosecution for failing to properly report sexual abuse.

It would also be the first case where a U.S. bishop was charged in the sexual abuse scandal that has marred the Catholic Church for more than a decade and seen priests from Massachusetts to California face criminal prosecution, a victims’ rights official said.

“The very root cause of this is because bishops aided and abetted or transferred priests they knew were molesters and perpetuated the abuse — somewhere that’s got to stop,” said Mary Grant, the Western regional director for the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests. “I hope that law enforcement, for the first time, (charges a bishop) because this is the root cause.”

Walsh and an attorney for the diocese could not be reached for comment. In a statement posted earlier on the Diocese of Santa Rosa Web site, the bishop apologized for not immediately reporting suspected abuse by the Rev. Francisco Xavier Ochoa, 68, but said that his delay was “an error in judgment” and not intended to allow Ochoa time to escape.

“The best way to renew the healing process and rebuild a spirit of understanding is to admit my own personal fault, and accept any consequences that may ensue,” Walsh wrote. “If I am found guilty for not taking immediate action, I will accept whatever punishment is imposed.”

State law requires clergy, teachers and others to report suspected child abuse to a law enforcement agency “immediately or as soon as is practicably possible” and then follow up with a written statement within 36 hours. Failure to do so is a misdemeanor punishable by up to six months in jail or a $1,000 fine.

Walsh, in a letter to his parish, said Ochoa admitted in an April 28 meeting that he’d sexually abused a boy in Sonoma County and confessed to two other incidents with boys in Napa County and Mexico years earlier. Two other church officials were present at the meeting, Walsh wrote.

The boy in the alleged Sonoma County incident was 12 years old at the time, and the boys in the other two alleged incidents were between the ages of 14 and 16 at the time, according to the district attorney’s office.

Walsh said in the letter that he consulted with the diocese’s attorney the next day, on Saturday, April 29, and a decision was made that the attorney would notify authorities after the weekend, on Monday, May 1 — three days after the initial meeting with Ochoa.

Authorities have said they believe Ochoa fled to Mexico in early May. He is being sought on a warrant alleging unlawful flight to avoid prosecution on 10 felonies — including lewd acts with a child, forcible sodomy and oral copulation — and a misdemeanor charge.

According to court documents, Ochoa acknowledged kissing the 12-year-old boy on the mouth and offering him $100 to do a striptease. Another alleged victim said Ochoa showed him gay pornographic videos, authorities have said.

Walsh has said he immediately placed Ochoa on administrative leave, removed him from all ministries and barred him from serving as a priest. The bishop has said he is “deeply sorry” for not immediately reporting Ochoa’s “reprehensible behavior” to authorities.

“I waited from an excess of caution,” Walsh wrote to parishioners. “In attempting to consult first with our diocesan attorney, I made a mistake. I failed to be guided by my own precepts for decisive action and for doing the right thing.”