Abuse Charges against Sonoma Priest
10 Felony, 1 Misdemeanor Sex Counts Filed; Former Judge Urges Prosecution of Bishop for Failing to Quickly Notify Authorities
By Guy Kovner
The Press-Democrat [Sonoma CA]
June 23, 2006
Ten felony child sex abuse charges were filed Thursday against the Rev. Xavier Ochoa, a Sonoma priest who authorities believe has fled the country.
The felonies and a single misdemeanor charge involve lewd conduct with three minors, including forcible sodomy and forcible oral copulation, the Sonoma County District Attorney's Office said.
"The charges speak very loudly," District Attorney Stephan Passalacqua said. "We take this as a very serious matter."
In other developments Thursday:
John Gallagher, a former county prosecutor and judge and the father of a church sex abuse victim, called for the prosecution of Santa Rosa Bishop Daniel Walsh for failing to report Ochoa's alleged misconduct in a timely manner.
"I think it's time we held the bishops accountable," he said.
Leaders of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, a national victims advocacy group known as SNAP, called on Walsh to visit Ochoa's parish in Sonoma this weekend and to urge anyone with information about Ochoa to contact police.
"Child sex abuse thrives in secrecy," SNAP's letter to Walsh said. "The solution is openness."
SNAP also asked Walsh to answer questions from parishioners and the media.
Walsh, who consistently has refused to discuss priest misconduct, did so again when a reporter visited his home.
"I told you I'm not" going to comment, he said. "I don't have to give you a reason. Goodbye."
Walsh, dressed in shorts and a red T-shirt, then guided the reporter out the door.
If convicted of offenses involving two or more victims, Ochoa, 69, would face a life sentence in prison, Passalacqua said.
Ochoa, who was an assistant pastor at St. Francis Solano Church in Sonoma, is believed to be in Mexico, but his exact whereabouts are unknown, Sheriff's Sgt. Dennis O'Leary said.
If he is in Mexico, where he was ordained as a Jesuit priest in 1969, authorities would have to pursue extradition, Passalacqua said. Ochoa has served in the Santa Rosa Diocese since 1988.
In other extradition cases involving a potential life sentence, Mexican officials have not always cooperated with authorities from other counties, Passalacqua said.
"It's been an ongoing problem," he said. "It's an issue that we'll have to address."
Passalacqua said Walsh's cooperation enabled authorities to investigate the Ochoa case and to file charges.
"I think it's clear the bishop did come forward in a fairly expedient fashion," he said.
A county official said Wednesday that the letter Walsh's attorney sent to Sonoma County Child Protective Services on May 1 did not comply with state law for reporting suspected child abuse,
Walsh and other diocese priests should have reported the case by phone within 24 hours after meeting April 28 with Ochoa, said Carol Bauer, director of the county Family, Youth and Children's Services.
At that meeting with Walsh and two other priests, Ochoa allegedly admitted to sexual misconduct with a 12-year-old boy. Walsh immediately removed Ochoa from priestly duties, but authorities were not notified for three days.
By the time sheriff's investigators began looking for Ochoa, he had put his property in storage and left the county, according to court records.
On May 4, Ochoa left a message on another priest's phone saying he was in a Tijuana hospital.
Passalacqua said he was unaware Walsh failed to comply with the mandatory reporting law.
"It has not been brought to our attention," he said.
But once told of the failure, Passalacqua said his office would "evaluate this issue closely."
He said he was requesting a no-bail arrest warrant for Ochoa, who he identified as Francisco Ochoa-Perez and Francisco Xavier Ochoa. The warrant should be issued today, Passalacqua said.
Court records identify three alleged victims:
A 12-year-old boy who allegedly stripped naked for Ochoa at his Sonoma apartment in April.
A 27-year-old man who said Ochoa showed him gay pornographic videos and taught him to masturbate about 12 years ago in Cotati.
Another man Ochoa allegedly molested repeatedly years ago.
Authorities said all the incidents took place in or after 1988. The U.S. Supreme Court barred California's prosecution of decades-old child sex abuse cases in 2003, but local prosecutors said the ruling allowed action on cases from 1988 onward.
Two former county priests have been convicted of molesting children. Gary Timmons served four years in prison and was released in 2000. His picture appears on a state Justice Department Web site identifying registered sex offenders.
Don Kimball's conviction was erased by the Supreme Court ruling.
Ochoa is the 17th priest from the Santa Rosa Diocese accused of molesting a child.
In 2004, the U.S. Conference of Catholics reported 4,392 priests had been accused of sexual misconduct since 1950, involving 10,667 victims. Criminal charges were filed against 217 priests and 100 spent time in prison, the church said.
Gallagher, a Superior Court judge for 21 years, said bishops are just as culpable as child molesters if they shield offenders from prosecution.
If Walsh failed to comply with the reporting law, he should be prosecuted, Gallagher said.
In 1994, Gallagher's son was the first to publicly accuse a North Coast priest of sex abuse.
David Clohessy, SNAP's national director, said prosecuting a bishop may be the only way to promote change within the Catholic Church.
Prosecutors across the country have "cut deals" or "stepped away" from filing charges against "complicit bishops," Clohessy said. "The results speak for themselves."
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