California Molestation Law Struck Down
Abuse: Hundreds of convictions will be tossed
out and prosecutions dropped, some involving priests.
By Richard Winton, Jean Guccione and Henry Weinstein,
Times Staff Writers
June 27, 2003
California violated the Constitution when it passed a law
to revive criminal
prosecutions in long-ago sexual-abuse cases, the U.S. Supreme
Thursday in a decision that will affect hundreds of molestation
The best known of the cases are those involving Roman Catholic
than 20 of whom have been arrested statewide in the last 18
allegedly abusing children. Nearly all those cases will now
have to be dismissed.
Beyond the priests, however, are hundreds more cases that
do not involve
clergy parents who abused their children, teachers
who abused studdents, police
officers who molested Scouts.
State officials did not have a precise count of how many
would now be released from prison or how many pending prosecutions
to be abandoned. But the law has been used in roughly 800
cases since it took
effect in 1994, said Hallye Jordan, spokeswoman for the California
The case that prompted the court's 5-4 ruling is an example
non-clerical cases. It involves a 72-year-old man, Marion
Stogner, a retired paper plant
worker and Korean War veteran who is now living on an Indian
Arizona. In 1998, Stogner was indicted on charges of having
raped his daughters
repeatedly between 1955 and 1973.
At the time the offenses allegedly occurred, the time limit
the crimes would have been three years.
But in 1993, the Legislature changed the law to say that
could be prosecuted in cases of significant sexual contact
so long as the charges
were brought within one year of when authorities were first
change was made retroactive.
The effect was to dramatically expand the number of cases
that could be
prosecuted, reviving hundreds of long-dormant cases. The California
upheld the new statute of limitations in 2001.
The new law opened the way to prosecution of many priests
in cases that
victims advocates say were hidden for years by church officials.
In the Los Angeles Archdiocese, criminal charges are pending
priests and a seminarian, and "nearly all, if not all,
will be dismissed," said Los
Angeles County Dist. Atty. Steve Cooley.
The case of Father Carl Sutphin, 71, a retired priest from
Ventura County who
is charged with 14 counts of child molestation involving seven
the late 1960s and '70s, also is likely to be affected. Sutphin
guilty to those charges last month and remains free on bail.
But while prosecuting child abusers is a laudable goal, "there
is also a
predominating constitutional interest in forbidding the state
to revive a
long-forbidden prosecution," Justice Stephen G. Breyer
wrote for the majority. If the
California law was permitted to stand, it would tempt legislators
to "pick and
choose when to act retroactively," Breyer wrote.
Changing the rules retroactively was a clear violation of
ban on laws that are "ex post facto," meaning after
the fact, the majority
"California's law subjects an individual ... to prosecution
long after the
state has, in effect, granted an amnesty," Breyer wrote.
withdraws a complete defense to prosecution after it has already
added. " 'Unfair' seems to us a fair characterization."
Justices Sandra Day O'Connor, David H. Souter, Ruth Bader
Ginsburg and John
Paul Stevens joined Breyer's opinion.
Justice Anthony M. Kennedy issued a stinging dissent.
It is often difficult for a victim of sexual abuse to muster
the courage to
go to authorities and report an abuser, who in many cases
is a figure of
authority in the victim's life, he wrote. The law should "show
its compassion and
concern when the victim at last can find the strength, and
know the necessity,"
"The court now tells the victims their decision to come
forward is in vain."
Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist and Associate Justices
Antonin Scalia and
Clarence Thomas joined the dissent. Three of the dissenters
and Thomas were raised as Catholics.
In addition to its impact on California's sex-abuse law,
the ruling may also
have an impact on the federal government's anti-terror efforts.
In a brief, the Bush administration had asked the justices
California's law. They warned that a decision striking down
the California law could
imperil aspects of the Patriot Act, the anti-terror statute
enacted after the
Sept. 11 attacks. The Patriot Act had eliminated an existing
limit on prosecuting terrorism cases that involve death or
serious bodily injury.
The administration also has proposed legislation that would
statute of limitations in cases covering child abduction and
in instances where a
perpetrator was identified through DNA evidence, the brief
A Justice Department spokesman said Thursday that officials
reviewing the court's decision to determine whether it would,
in fact, undermine
The ruling does not affect sex-abuse prosecutions based on
crimes. Sexual-abuse cases that have occurred since the California
law was passed
will still be subject to prosecution any time up to one year
In addition, because the ruling affects only criminal prosecutions,
it has no
impact on the scores of civil damage lawsuits brought against
Catholic dioceses in California stemming from the sex scandal,
said USC law
professor Erwin Chemerinsky.
Tod Tamberg, spokesman for the Los Angeles Archdiocese, said
the ruling also
will have no effect on the church's "zero tolerance"
policy against sexual
"The priests found to have abused minors have been permanently
the ministry in the Archdiocese of Los Angeles," Tamberg
said. "The court's
ruling does not make way for those men to reenter ministry
or to function in any
way as priests."
Tamberg also said the archdiocese will continue to follow
rules adopted by
U.S. Catholic bishops last year, which require that any priest
having abused a minor, regardless of how long ago, be immediately
reported to law
Nonetheless, prosecutors and advocates for sex-abuse victims
"It is a devastating loss for the victims of child abuse
who were taken
advantage of solely because they were children," said
Cooley. "It is unfortunate
that many child victims of sexual abuse will not be able to
obtain justice in a
criminal court. Obviously, some sexual predators will escape
Once paperwork is completed, prosecutors will go to court
in the next few
weeks to drop cases against people with pending charges or
to seek release of
those whose convictions will now have to be reversed, prosecutors
In total, the Los Angeles County district attorney's office
will have to
review more than 200 cases to see which are affected by the
high court ruling,
Ventura County Dist. Atty. Greg Totten said his deputies
have begun to review
current and former sex-abuse cases to determine which ones
must be dismissed
based on the court's ruling. They have flagged more than 20
so far, he said.
"We are duty-bound to comply with it, but I am disappointed
because I think
the decision really rewards child abusers," Totten said.
It is too early to know how many would have to be dropped
because in some
cases defendants face multiple charges, some of which may
pass legal muster. But
Cooley warned of dire consequences.
"We could have hundreds of convicted child molesters
on the streets and we
would rather have them behind bars," he said.
Robert Kalunian, chief deputy public defender in Los Angeles
County, said it
is likely to be months before the first inmates are released
Lawyers will have to search a decade of case files to determine
qualify for release.
"It's going to be a problem for us to try to locate
them," Kalunian said.
"Even once they are identified, it is going to take court
California's law grew out of an explosion of public awareness
abuse that began in the early 1980s, according to Nancy O'Malley,
County chief assistant district attorney who chairs the sexual
of the California District Attorneys Assn.
In many cases, victims were coming forward to report sexual
happened too long ago to allow prosecution. Victims and prosecutors
change the statute of limitations.
The change in the law gave prosecutors a powerful weapon
advocates had held up as a national model. They had urged
other states to copy what
California had done, although legislators in most states held
off on such
action, waiting to see what the high court would rule in the
In other states, prosecutors investigating sexual abuse by
priests say they
have been severely hampered by statutes of limitation that
prosecutions. In Massachusetts, for instance, Boston-area
prosecutors have said they will
not be able to prosecute more than 30 of 50 cases they have
investigation because the abuse happened too long ago.
A grand jury looking into sexual abuse by priests on Long
Island made a
similar complaint in a report earlier this year.
The demise of California law is a "terrible blow,"
said David Clohessy,
national director of the Survivors Network of those Abused
"Frankly, I worry about those brave women and men in
California who've taken
great risk to do their civil duty to report their abusers
and now face the
awful reality of their victimizers back on the streets,"
he said. "It sends the
wrong message to the bishops to conceal more effectively and
maybe you'll get
lucky and the clock will run out."
But the ruling was hailed by defense lawyers.
"The witch hunt is over, by order of the U.S. Supreme
Court," said Donald
Steier, an attorney who represents several accused priests
in Southern California.
"Never before has a state attempted to go back in time
to resurrect criminal
charges that were never reported, never investigated and never
court in a timely manner," Steier said.
"I hate to think how much public money has been wasted
on these ancient
Kalunian, the chief deputy public defender in Los Angeles
County, said the
ruling "is based on fairness."
"After a statute of limitations runs, a person should
be free from the
government's attempt to incarcerate them," he said. "Old
cases are very problematic
for both sides because memories fade and witnesses can die
The ruling removes a significant legal cloud for the Los
because it will prevent prosecutions of priests who prosecutors
would provide evidence implicating senior church officials
But it will hardly end the litigation the archdiocese faces.
Records Still an Issue
Cooley said the case would not derail his long-running dispute
archdiocese over access to personnel records that church argues
should be kept
"We engaged in significant amounts of litigation to
get the records," Cooley
said. "We still want to be able to get the records because,
like the archdiocese, there will be more cases in the future.
And we we'll keep
trying to get the records until a court decides we don't have
the right to
J. Michael Hennigan, who represents the archdiocese, said
he was heartened by
the decision's language about fairness. Lawyers for the church
similar arguments in the civil cases, he suggested.
Civil lawyers vowed Thursday to continue to seek access to
admissions of sex abuse by priests.
Times staff writers Megan Garvey and Rick Schmitt contributed
to this report.
Copyright 2003 Los Angeles Times