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Apology Sought for Backing Priest

San Francisco police enrage victims' group

Jaxon Van Derbeken, Chronicle Staff Writer
Saturday, February 1, 2003

San Francisco -- A group representing people molested by Roman Catholic priests is demanding the San Francisco police chief apologize for his officers' public support of a department chaplain accused of molesting a boy 40 years ago.

"Your job is to prevent crime and catch criminals," leaders of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP) wrote to Chief Earl Sanders in a letter dated Friday, two days after a deputy chief and dozens of officers appeared at a bail hearing for Monsignor John Heaney.

"You can only do this if crime victims feel safe cooperating with you," the SNAP leaders said. "That won't happen if crime victims see your employees rallying behind accused child molesters."

Besides an apology, the group called for sensitivity training of officers and discipline of any officer who appeared at Heaney's arraignment Wednesday while on duty.

Sanders declined to comment through a department spokesman.

Heaney, senior chaplain to the Police Department for more than three decades, has pleaded not guilty to eight felony counts accusing him of molesting a boy for more than two years, starting when the child was 7 years old in September 1961.

The molestations stopped around the time the boy turned 10, prosecutors said, adding that the man's two brothers are corroborating witnesses.

The alleged victim is now 49 years old. Neither he nor his brothers were identified in court filings.

Among those standing by the 75-year-old Heaney was Deputy Chief Greg Suhr, who was in court Wednesday for the hearing at which Heaney's bail was cut to $150,000 from $800,000. Others who have offered their support to the defense are Assistant Chief Alex Fagan Sr. and Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif.

SNAP said Suhr's presence in court was "particularly upsetting. . . . An individual in his role with his title and authority should certainly have known better and shown better judgment."

Suhr stood by his decision to attend the hearing.

"Here is a 75-year-old man who has suffered a stroke and done as much good as he has done," Suhr said. "I don't think that it serves anybody to go past 'innocent until proven guilty' here.

"He has always, always shown up for the Police Department, no matter the hour of the night," Suhr said. "To that end, we need to wait and see what the judicial system determines."

At Wednesday's hearing in San Francisco Superior Court, Heaney's attorney, Jim Collins, pointed to the crowd of about 100 former and current officers, firefighters and other colleagues as vouching for the retired priest's reliability and character.

Terrie Light, a local leader of SNAP, said Friday that police were sending the wrong message to molestation victims.

"It's totally outrageous," she said. "There's many of us, victims, counting on the Police Department and the district attorney to put these bad guys in jail. Hearing all these comments -- from people in very prestigious, powerful positions -- supporting him, I felt this sense of overwhelming sadness."

Light said the Catholic Church has long harbored child molesters. "But the police, their call is to the public safety and, it seems, above all, the safety of children," Light said.

"It is one thing to . . . sit back and say, 'Wait and see,' and personally not believe it," she said. "But to be allowed to go public for the support. . . . What does that say to the public? In my mind, it says, 'He is not guilty. We know him. We are going to vouch for him. He's a good guy.' "

E-mail Jaxon Van Derbeken at jvanderbeken@sfchronicle.com.

©2003 San Francisco Chronicle


Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests
www.snapnetwork.org

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