Sex Charges against Ex-Gridley Priest Void under Ruling

By Terry Vau Dell
Chico Enterprise-Record
June 28, 2003

Oroville - Local prosecutors said Friday child molestation charges against a former Gridley priest will now have to be dismissed as a result of a recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling.

A warrant had been issued for the arrest of Costellano Jose Pinal, 51, charging him with sodomizing a then-14-year-old boy in 1983 when he was a pastor at Sacred Heart Church in Gridley.

Pinal, who is now believed to be residing in Mexico, wrote a letter to church officials several years ago, largely admitting to the sexual offenses, according to local prosecutors.

However, the nation's high court on Thursday struck down prosecutions of cases like Pinal's where the legal time period for bringing them to trial had passed.

The narrow 5-4 decision could overturn as many as 800 child molestation convictions in California, some of them involving Catholic priests.

The ruling affects California's Penal Code Section 803, which allowed prosecution of serious sexual abuse cases, including child molestation and rape, within one year of the crime being reported, even if the offense occurred many years ago.

The high court ruling blocks the government from "reviving" older sexual abuse cases where the statute of limitations expired prior to enactment of the 1993 state law.

The court majority held it was fundamentally unfair for the government to change the rules after the fact.

Justice Stephen Breyer, writing for the majority, said prosecuting child abusers is important, "but there is also a predominating constitutional interest in forbidding the state to revive a long-forbidden prosecution."

The four dissenting justices countered that "when a child molester commits his offense, he is well aware the harm will plague the victim for a lifetime."

"The law should show its compassion and concern when the victim at last can find the strength, and know the necessity to come forward," Justice Anthony M. Kennedy wrote for the four dissenting justices. "The court now tells the victim their decision to come forward is in vain."

Denny Forland, who administers the Butte County public defender consortium, agreed with the high court decision.

"I think it's constitutionally correct ... The danger of charging someone 10, 20 or 30 years later is his or her inability to adequately defend against the charges," said Forland.

District Attorney Mike Ramsey pointed out the state law affected by the high court ruling had "built in safeguards" allowing only those older cases to go to court that had been "independently corroborated."

Ramsey said "at least" two local molestation cases, including the one against the Catholic priest, will be dismissed in the wake of the Supreme Court decision.

The other case involves a 26-year-old Oroville woman who came forward after a male family member was charged with molesting two girls, ages 5 and 11, to allege he had done the same thing to her as a child years ago.

Since the eight-year statute of limitations had already expired in the woman's case before Penal Code 803 was enacted, it now can't go forward, according to deputy district attorney Lynda Passmore.

However, the prosecutor said she intends to proceed to trial against the Oroville defendant on the two recent molestation charges.

The case involving the Catholic priest had gone virtually unnoticed until this week's high court opinion vacated it.

According to court records, the then-14-year-old alleged victim claimed that the priest had twice sodomized him in 1983 in the Gridley parish rectory and also fondled him during a scuba diving trek to Mexico the following year.

Deputy district attorney Leo Barone said Friday the boy's mother had "encouraged contact" with the priest, unaware of the alleged molestations.

When the boy reported the incidents about six years later to the pastor who replaced Pinal, Pinal was removed from the Sacramento Diocese and the boy was "offered counseling," said Barone.

In a letter to a Catholic bishop in 1991, the ousted priest "made admissions" concerning the molestations, according to the local prosecutor, and inquired whether he would face criminal charges if he returned from Mexico to the United States.

A spokesman for the diocese confirmed the information Friday, saying as part of its "zero tolerance policy" against abusive priests, it referred the Pinal case to the Butte County District Attorney's Office last summer.

Following a DA investigation, two counts of forcible sodomy were quietly brought against the former Gridley priest last month.

Ramsey said he purposely didn't publicize the case because the warrant for Pinal's arrest was outstanding and "we didn't want him to flee."

Thursday's Supreme Court ruling rendered moot "any further secrecy in the case," Ramsey noted.

"When we have solid evidence as (we) do in this case," said Barone, who would have prosecuted the ex-priest, "it's disturbing that you can't seek justice."


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