Priests Likely Winners in Supreme Court Ruling
Thu June 26, 2003
By Jill Serjeant
LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - Almost all the Roman Catholic priests
accused of child sexual abuse in California are likely to
escape prosecution after a Supreme Court ruling on Thursday
that struck down a law enabling the prosecution of old sex
"We expect all of these ancient cases to be dismissed...The
witch-hunt is over," said attorney Don Steier who represents
more than 20 Los Angeles-area priests accused of sex abuse,
sometimes dating back decades.
"The practical result of today's decision is that virtually
all of the cases involving accusations against local priests
must be dismissed if they have already been filed, or dropped
because they cannot be filed," Steier told reporters.
Ten former or current priests in the Los Angeles archdiocese
alone have been charged with child molestation in the sex
abuse scandal that rocked the Catholic Church last year and
which is still moving through the California courts.
But the Supreme Court ruled 5-4 on Thursday that California
cannot retroactively erase statutes of limitation for sex
crimes against children.
The law was challenged by Marion Stogner, a 72-year-old man
who was accused in 2001 of molesting his daughters when they
were children almost 50 years previously.
But the implications of the Supreme Court ruling were felt
most keenly among those involved in the Catholic Church sex
Lawyers representing several hundred alleged victims in civil
claims against California priests expressed dismay at the
Supreme Court decision, but said it should have no impact
on pending civil cases.
Los Angeles County District Attorney Steve Cooley said the
decision meant that "many child victims of sexual abuse
will not be able to obtain justice in a criminal court. Some
sexual predators will escape criminal accountability.
Cooley said his office would now be unable "to pursue
those offenses committed by clergy and others," and added
that he would review more than 200 cases overall that could
be affected by the ruling.
"I think pedophile priests are celebrating today because
they will not be criminally prosecuted. But victims still
have recourse through civil claims," said Kathy Freberg,
a lawyer representing more than 100 alleged victims from San
Francisco to San Diego in civil cases.
Attorney Raymond Boucher said the ruling was "anti-child
protection" but said it might be advantageous for civil
plaintiffs because priests would no longer be able to invoke
their Fifth Amendment rights to avoid self-incrimination in
potential criminal cases.
"At least we will get some more information when we
take depositions," Boucher said.
The Los Angeles Archdiocese, which has been criticized by
Cooley for obstructing the prosecution of accused priests,
said the ruling would have no effect on its policy of permanently
removing from the ministry any priest found guilty of sexual
"The Court's ruling does not make way for those men
to reenter ministry or function in any way as priests,"
the Archdiocese said in a statement.