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Victims Angered and Upset By Supreme Court Ruling Freeing Molesters


LOS ANGELES, July 12 — George Neville Rucker, an 82-year-old former Roman Catholic priest, was on a two-month cruise off the Aleutian Islands in Alaska, when, the authorities said, his past finally caught up with him.

Alaska state troopers arrested him, harnessed him on a tug boat and returned him to Los Angeles, where he faced charges of molesting 12 girls over 30 years, starting a year after he was ordained as a priest in 1946. If convicted, he faced a possible prison sentence of 26 years.

But this week, before any evidence was presented to a jury, Mr. Rucker walked out of court a free man.

He is among perhaps hundreds of people in California who are being freed from trial or jail as a result of a United States Supreme Court ruling on June 26 overturning a 1993 California law that allowed charges against child molesters protected by a previous deadline on prosecutions.

State officials said the decision affected as many as 800 people accused of sexual offenses or already convicted.

The ruling and the release of the offenders has infuriated victims and frustrated prosecutors.

"We're still licking our wounds here," said William Hodgeman, head of the sexual crimes unit of the Los Angeles County district attorney's office. "Conservatively, we have over 200 impacted cases in L.A. County alone, with the prospect of it going higher."

He added, "Without question, there will be established child molesters free from custody and allowed to go back into the communities from whence they came."

Among those the decision frees, prosecutors said, are Roman Catholic priests accused in some of the most notorious molestation cases in California. In addition to Mr. Rucker, prosecutors dropped charges this week against two other former priests. The decision applies to all molesters recently charged in crimes that occurred before 1988 or recently convicted in such crimes.

Among them is John Anthony Salazar, a former priest charged with molesting a student at a rectory at a Catholic high school and an altar boy at a church in Los Angeles in the early 1980's.

"It devastated me and my family," said Carlos Perez-Carrillo, who said Mr. Salazar molested him repeatedly at St. Bernard High School in Playa del Rey 20 years ago. "You wait for justice for 20 years, and then it's taken away overnight."

In a 5-4 decision, the Supreme Court ruled that the 1993 California law that, effective in 1994, extended the deadline for prosecuting sexual crimes violated the Constitution's prohibition on laws that make an action illegal after the fact.

Until 1994, child molesters could not be prosecuted in California more than six years after the offense. The new law extended the time in which prosecutions were allowed and authorized prosecutions that the old law's deadline had barred.

Under the new law, an adult could provide evidence of sexual molestation before age 18, regardless of when it occurred, and prosecutors had a year to bring charges.

The Supreme Court's ruling said the Constitution's ban on retroactive laws prohibited prosecution for offenses that had been previously barred by the passage of time. The ruling took effect immediately, and several people accused of sexual offenses were released the next day.

"Trials were stopped, people were released from prisons, investigations were closed," Bill Lockyer, the California attorney general, said in an interview. His office is compiling records of cases affected by the decision, and he estimated that 500 to 800 prosecutions would be dropped.

"The court has the last and final word on these matters, and I respect their sensitivity to the constitutional provision," Mr. Lockyer said. "But I think they're wrong. These crimes were committed; they're awful crimes; and turning these people loose creates risks for all children in this state."

The ruling allows charges for molestation after 1988 because only the retroactive extension of the deadline for prosecution was overturned, he said.

On Monday, charges were dropped against Mr. Rucker, who was accused of sexually assaulting 12 girls from 1947 to 1977. The youngest victim was 7, prosecutors said.

After his arrest on the cruise ship, Mr. Rucker was freed on bail and was to have been tried later this year. He has been living in a Los Angeles home for retired priests.

Mr. Rucker's lawyer, Donald Steier, said the California law was defective and he would have challenged it at trial.

Prosecutors cannot conceal their dismay at the effect of the decision.

"I am frustrated and disappointed," said Rosanne Froeberg, chief of sex crimes prosecution in the Orange County district attorney's office. "I have gone through a series of emotions, not dissimilar to a divorce."

Ms. Froeberg said this week that she had identified eight cases that had been dismissed, or would be, and three sexual offenders who would be released from prison. Three of her cases involved clergy, she said.

The worst part, she said, has been breaking the news to victims and victim advocates.

"I have to let them know that these people will be getting out of custody" without any provision for probation, parole or protective orders, she said. Those affected by the decision will not have to comply with the state's law that requires sexual offenders to register with the authorities and notify the communities in which they intend to live.

Katherine Freberg, a lawyer in Irvine, Calif., who represents several people who say they were abused by priests, said the ruling would affect not only the estimated 800 child molesters in the California justice system but also many others.

"Potentially thousands and thousands of other pedophiles will get away with their crimes because other state legislatures will be reluctant to pass new laws," Ms. Freberg said. Lawmakers in New York, Massachusetts, Illinois and Florida, she said, had been considering extending the statute of limitations for sexual crimes against children but would now be unlikely to try.

Mr. Perez-Carrillo, 37, said that his molestation by Mr. Salazar had undermined his relationship with the church, which he said had been the center of his life when he was growing up in the San Fernando Valley. Now he said he was equally disillusioned with the state.

"The implications of what happened at the Supreme Court — that 800 possible child molesters and rapists are going to be set free — is just overwhelming," said Mr. Perez-Carrillo, a supervising social worker in Los Angeles. "The Supreme Court needed to look at the protection of children and they didn't. This is just a devastating blow for children."

Copyright 2003 The New York Times Company

Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests