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Abuses by Clergy Become New Focus for Prosecutors


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 cities.

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, said.

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 four decades.

"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 this week.

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 five days.

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 week.

"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 three decades.

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 the church."

Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests