Abuses by Clergy Become New Focus
By SAM DILLON - THE NEW YORK TIMES
April 5, 2002
SANTA ROSA, Calif., April 4 In the only
sexual abuse trial of a priest now before an American jury,
the Rev. Don Kimball stands accused of raping a 14-year-old
girl near the altar of a Roman Catholic church 25 years ago,
when he was a youth minister who mixed massage therapy and
rock music with Bible readings.
Legal scholars said it appeared that Father Kimball could
not be tried in any other state, because the statute of limitations
had run out for the charges against him. In California, however,
a 1993 law that is unique in the nation effectively eliminated
statutes of limitation for sex abuse. In Sonoma County, the
district attorney, J. Michael Mullins, has pursued priestly
abusers with unusual determination.
"God intends me to do my duty under the law," Mr.
Mullins, who is Catholic, said.
But if the California law and Mr. Mullins's tough stance
have made Father Kimball's trial unique for now, that may
be changing. Prosecutors in several regions said they were
seeking new ways to interpret laws that could allow them to
press criminal charges against abusive priests even when statutes
of limitation would seem to block them.
Other law enforcement actions from Maine to Los Angeles in
recent days suggest that prosecutors across the nation are
shedding long-held concerns of taking on a powerful institution
like the Roman Catholic Church and adopting a more aggressive
posture toward reports of sexual abuse by the clergy.
In Detroit and Cincinnati, prosecutors served subpoenas on
a bishop and an archdiocese last week, demanding information
about priests accused of sexual misconduct. In both cases,
the prosecutors called their actions unprecedented for their
Michael K. Allen, the Hamilton County prosecuting attorney
who issued the subpoena on the Cincinnati Archdiocese, said
scores of citizens called his office to urge a tough stance.
"People are saying, `Hey, Mr. Prosecutor, these abuses
are terrible, go after them!' " Mr. Allen, who is Catholic,
In St. Louis, the prosecutor collected dozens of previously
unreported sexual accusations against priests after inviting
citizens to report abuses, allowing her to open new criminal
investigations against more than a dozen current or former
priests, a spokesman said.
In Maine, eight district attorneys asked the Portland Diocese
to release records of accusations of sexual abuse dating back
75 years and said even cases for which statutes of limitations
had expired could yield information leading to new prosecutions.
In Los Angeles, the district attorney and police chief insisted
that the archdiocese comply with statutes requiring the clergy
to report sexual abuse to law enforcement agencies, thus prying
loose enough new information to begin several criminal investigations.
Just this week the Archdiocese of New York, after weeks of
resistance, complied with the request of the Manhattan district
attorney, Robert M. Morgenthau, turning over personnel files
on priests who had been accused of sexual abuse in the past
"I've watched law enforcement deal with church authorities
for decades, and a monumental change has swept the country
in the last few months," said A. W. Richard Sipe, a retired
psychologist who has appeared as an expert witness in more
than 50 sexual abuse trials. "Prosecutors are not acting
as timidly in the face of the church as they once did."
Bill Ryan, a spokesman for the United States Conference of
Catholic Bishops, said he was aware that sometimes prosecutors
had not filed charges against priests accused of abuse, often
because statutes of limitation had expired or because victims
did not want to be publicly identified.
"Sometimes prosecutors felt there was nothing they could
do with these things," Mr. Ryan said. "I certainly
wouldn't say it was because prosecutors were afraid of the
Catholic Church, because I don't know that to be true."
"Obviously there's a different attitude now," Mr.
Ryan added. "Authorities in some places are saying, `Give
us names, we don't care how far back they go.' "
Some prosecutors interviewed this week disputed the notion
that they and their colleagues across the nation had ever
been reluctant to prosecute members of the clergy. But several
lawyers, law professors and advocates for abuse victims said
prosecutors had rarely acted with as much vigor as the plaintiffs'
lawyers who have collected huge civil settlements from the
church on behalf of abuse victims.
Sylvia Demarest, a Dallas lawyer, used statistics to support
that argument. From among the 46,000 American priests, Ms.
Demarest said, she has collected 1,200 names of priests accused
of sex crimes against minors. Of those, only about 120 ever
had criminal charges lodged against them, and fewer than 80
served time in prison, she said.
A clear sign of change was the subpoenas issued last week
by the two Midwestern district attorneys.
In Detroit, the Wayne County prosecutor, Mike Duggan, issued
a subpoena to Bishop Kevin Britt, who handles sexual abuse
issues for the Archdiocese of Detroit, to give sworn testimony
Rebecca R. Tenorio, a spokeswoman for Mr. Duggan, said that
after a middle-aged woman reported sexual misconduct by a
priest to the police in a Detroit suburb the police requested
that Mr. Duggan issue an arrest warrant. To verify the accusations,
Mr. Duggan subpoenaed Bishop Britt, Ms. Tenorio said. A lawyer
for the archdiocese said the bishop would comply.
In Cincinnati, the decision to issue a subpoena grew from
an announcement by Archbishop Daniel E. Pilarczyk in mid March
that about 20 church employees, including some priests, had
been accused of child abuse in the past. The archbishop did
not release names.
The next day, Mr. Allen said, scores of citizens called him
demanding that he investigate. On March 18 he sent a terse
letter to Archbishop Pilarczyk, requesting the names and addresses
of the victims and their abusers. He gave the archdiocese
A lawyer for the archdiocese responded by requesting that
Mr. Allen obtain a subpoena from a grand jury, which Mr. Allen
did. The archdiocese surrendered five boxes of documents last
"Prosecutors must be more vigilant," Mr. Allen
said. "To me this is simple. If you're a priest and receive
information about sexual abuse, just pick up the phone and
call the police. The Catholic Church seems to think that they
can handle this pastorally, but I respectfully disagree. This
is a matter for law enforcement."
In Los Angeles, a similar tug of war between law enforcement
and the archdiocese followed recent reports that Cardinal
Roger M. Mahony had forced into retirement 6 to 12 priests
connected to sexual abuse, without disclosing the priests'
names. Steve Cooley, the Los Angeles County district attorney,
and Chief Bernard C. Parks of the Los Angeles Police Department
each sent requests for the names.
Cardinal Mahony declined, but Cmdr. Gary J. Brennan, a police
spokesman, said the archdiocese had still provided enough
information to begin new investigations.
Perhaps the largest obstacle to prosecution are statutes
of limitation. But some law enforcement officials have been
re-examining the statutes, which courts have complicated in
some states by issuing contradictory rulings.
"We've been tearing apart the law books," said
Ed Postawko, head of the sex crimes unit for the St. Louis
circuit attorney. "The consensus among prosecutors has
been that the statute of limitations has expired for abuses
committed in the 60's and 70's, but I don't concede that."
"Different courts have said different things,"
Mr. Postawko added. "I talked with somebody in the Missouri
attorney general's office, and I changed his mind from `that's
an insurmountable problem' to `no, it isn't.' "
In New Hampshire, prosecutors have examined whether priests
based in Massachusetts but accused of committing abuses at
New Hampshire summer camps might be subject to prosecution
because in crossing state lines they "stopped the clock"
on the statutes of limitation.
Prosecutors in Massachusetts, in fact, used a similar argument
recently in one of their cases against John Geoghan, the former
Boston priest accused of molesting nearly 200 people over
Since Massachusetts law stops the clock if a defendant moves
out of the state, prosecutors argued that it should have also
stopped when Mr. Geoghan underwent psychological treatment
out of state. That argument was one of many that the prosecutors
mustered in an effort to overcome the state's 10-year statute
of limitations. Ultimately, however, the judge on the case
ruled against them and threw out the charges.
Nearly 30 states have extended or removed statutes of limitation
for sexual abuse crimes, but legal scholars say that none
have gone as far as California. There, a 1993 law lets prosecutors
try people accused of serious sex crimes against minors regardless
of when the offenses were committed, as long as they can convince
a jury that other evidence corroborates the victims' accusations.
Julie O'Brien, a Republican state legislator in Maine, predicted
that her state and others would follow California's lead.
"Legislation always follows the issues," she said.
It was not by chance that the first major display of the
California law since the state's Supreme Court upheld its
constitutionality in 1999 has come in the troubled Santa Rosa
Diocese, which encompasses 42 parishes running from San Francisco's
northern suburbs to the Oregon border. Mr. Mullins, the Sonoma
County district attorney, sent a Santa Rosa priest convicted
of abusing young boys at a church camp to prison in 1995,
and a former bishop resigned two years ago after prosecutors
investigated accusations of sexual coercion made against him
by another priest.
Settling a civil suit two years ago, the Santa Rosa Diocese
paid $1.6 million to four people who said they had been abused
by Father Kimball. Shortly after that suit, Mr. Mullins's
office charged the priest with raping the 14-year-old girl
in 1977 and with two counts of sexually abusing a 13-year-old
girl four years later.
Father Kimball, who is 58, has maintained his innocence of
all three charges, and his lawyer, Chris P. Andrian, has argued
that mounting a trial so many years later is unfair because
the victims, who are now in their 30's, cannot clearly remember
the crimes. The woman who accused Father Kimball of raping
her near the altar at Resurrection Parish in Santa Rosa testified
last month that after she became pregnant, Father Kimball
arranged an abortion.
Subpoenaed to testify, the Rev. John Steinbock, who was bishop
of the Santa Rosa Diocese in the 1980's, told the court that
he stripped Father Kimball of his ministerial duties in 1989
after the priest confessed to fondling six young parishioners.
Closing arguments in the trial are expected next week; Mr.
Kimball could face eight years in prison if convicted of the
most serious charge.
"I couldn't have tried this case 15 years ago,"
Gary A. Medvigy, the assistant district attorney prosecuting
the case, said. "Nobody would have believed that a priest
would do these things, and societal pressure would have protected