D.A. Defends Decision to Probe Santa Rosa Diocese
By Martin Espinoza - THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
July 29, 2006
Sonoma County District Attorney Stephan Passalacqua said Friday
his decision to investigate Catholic officials for possible violation
of sex abuse reporting laws was not an about-face, but a natural
evolution of the case against fugitive priest Xavier Ochoa.
"After the Ochoa matter was evaluated, then and only then did
we make a request to have the Sheriff's Department investigate the
mandatory reporting matter," said Passalacqua, interviewed
at his Santa Rosa office.
The Rev. Xavier Ochoa, a Sonoma priest now believed to be in Mexico,
is accused of 10 felony counts and one misdemeanor count of child
sex abuse involving three males.
A Santa Rosa Diocese lawyer reported abuse allegations in a fax
to Child Protective Services three days after Ochoa admitted sexual
improprieties to Bishop Daniel Walsh and other church officials.
A day later, the diocese sent the information to the Sheriff's Department.
Church critics say the delay gave Ochoa time to flee to Mexico.
State Penal Code Section 11166 requires priests and others to report
child sexual abuse "immediately or as soon as practicably possible
by telephone" and follow up by fax or e-mail within 36 hours.
In a statement to the media in late June, Passalacqua said Bishop
Daniel Walsh "did come forward in a fairly expedient fashion."
But new information about the case prompted the district attorney
to take a closer look, he said.
"When I made that comment, I was not aware of all the factors
that have surfaced since then," Passalacqua said.
Earlier this week, a federal arrest warrant was issued for Ochoa
for unlawful flight to avoid prosecution. The warrant paves the
way for U.S. marshals to work with Mexican police to locate and
Passalacqua would not respond to specific questions about the investigation
into the timing of the church's reporting on Ochoa, nor would he
offer his legal interpretation of the state penal code on mandatory
reporting of child abuse.
Passalacqua said he had not received the crime report from the Sheriff's
Department. Sheriff's Sgt. Dennis O'Leary said this week the report
was near completion.
"We've gathered all the information necessary to document the
mandated reporting issue with Bishop Walsh, and we anticipate that
the case will be forwarded to the District Attorney's Office in
the near future," O'Leary said.
Passalacqua noted that violation of the mandatory reporting law
is a misdemeanor - punishable by a maximum of six months in jail
and a $1,000 fine - and that those with a clean record are eligible
for Project Intercept, a pretrial adult diversion program.
"Everyone facing misdemeanor charges is eligible for the program
unless they have a criminal background or the particular charges
involve the use of force or violence," he said.
Asked if he was leaning toward such a path for Bishop Walsh or other
Santa Rosa Diocese officials, he said: "I'm not saying anything.
I'm just giving you the process."
Assistant District Attorney Christine Cook said prosecutions for
violating mandatory reporting laws are uncommon.
"In recent memory, I'm not aware of a mandatory report law
violation being filed, whether it be a delayed or utter failure
to report," she said.
Passalacqua, who said he is a Catholic, insisted there will be no
special treatment in the case.
"The law does not discriminate - no matter what your position
in society," he said. "We will closely evaluate this case
in the same manner, irrespective of whether the person is a bishop,
a rabbi, a Baptist preacher or an atheist."