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PRIESTS WON'T FACE TRIAL IN OLD SEX-ABUSE CASES.

Byline: Michael Gougis Staff Writer

The nation's highest court on Thursday struck down the California law used to prosecute decades-old sex-abuse cases, freeing dozens of priests and others accused of molesting children or similar crimes from the threat of prosecution.

In a 5-4 ruling, the Supreme Court found that the law retroactively eliminating the statute of limitations on sex crimes is unconstitutional, a decision that affects 70 of the 74 sex-abuse cases involving clergy that are now being investigated by the Los Angeles Police Department.

About 200 sexual-predator cases pending in Los Angeles County will have to be reviewed by prosecutors and those convicted under the statute will be able to seek release from prison.

``Pedophile priests across California are rejoicing today,'' said Kathy Freberg, an Orange County attorney representing 112 people suing priests in California.

Added Steven Sanchez of the Glendale chapter of the Survivors Network for Those Abused by Priests: ``It's a big step backward for victims today. This means that if you manage to keep the victim quiet long enough, the molester goes free.''

The Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Los Angeles issued a statement saying the ruling will not affect the status of abusive priests.

``All priests found to have abused minors have been permanently removed. The Court's ruling does not make way for those men to re-enter ministry or to function in any way as priests,'' the statement said.

Opponents of the law said it was clearly unconstitutional and made it impossible for people accused of old sex crimes to properly defend themselves.

``Never before in our nation's history has a state attempted to go back in time to resurrect criminal charges that were never reported, investigated or filed in a timely way,'' said attorney Larry Guzin, whose firm represents a former priest accused of sexually abusing three boys in the San Fernando Valley in the 1970s and 1980s.

``Everyone knew this was unconstitutional.''

In striking down the California law, Justice Stephen Breyer, writing for a largely liberal majority, said ``there is also a predominating constitutional interest in forbidding the state to revive a long-forbidden prosecution.''

``Memories fade, and witnesses can die or disappear,'' Breyer wrote. ``Such problems can plague child-abuse cases, where recollection after so many years may be uncertain, and 'recovered' memories faulty, but may nonetheless lead to prosecutions that destroy families.''

Justices John Paul Stevens, Sandra Day O'Connor, David H. Souter and Ruth Bader Ginsburg concurred in the ruling, which doesn't affect sex crimes that occur after the law was passed.

Prior to the change, California law set a statute of limitations of six years on certain sex crimes against minors. The 1994 change allowed charges to be brought no matter how many years had elapsed, as long as they were filed within a year of being brought to the attention of law enforcement.

The dissenting opinion was written by Justice Anthony M. Kennedy and joined by Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist and Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas.

``We should consider whether it is warranted to presume that criminals keep calendars so they can mark the day to discard their records or to place a gloating phone call to the victim,'' Kennedy wrote.

The case before the court, Stogner v. California, No. 01-1757, involved a Northern California man, Marion R. Stogner, charged five years ago with having molested his two daughters more than four decades earlier.

Los Angeles County District Attorney Steve Cooley said many cases will be affected by the ruling.

``Obviously, some sexual predators will escape criminal accountability,'' Cooley said.

Lt. Dennis Shirey, head of the LAPD's unit that deals with child- molestation cases and oversees the task force investigating allegations of priests abusing children, said prosecutions will be terminated and convicted molesters freed from prison.

``This will take the wind out of our sails. From an investigator's point of view, it's devastating,'' he said. ``Anything that happened prior to 1988, we can't reach back to. And the impact goes beyond the clergy. There are people in prison who are going to be released.''

It is clear that in some cases, prosecutors knew the legal challenges to the law had a significant potential for success.

Attorneys said that in several Los Angeles cases, defendants were pleading guilty with a stipulation that their records would be expunged if and when the challenge to the law's constitutionality was successful.

One San Fernando Valley man, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said he pleaded no contest in 2001 to a single charge of lewd conduct with a minor from incidents that allegedly happened in the early 1970s.

He said his plea recognized that he was pursuing a federal appeal, he got no jail time and now plans to ask a judge to set aside his conviction and remove his name from the sex-offender registry - as well as considering a civil suit against the state.

``My attorneys told me I had no chance in court,'' he said.

On Jan. 1, a state law went into effect that put on hold for a year the statute of limitations in child-molestation civil claims. Freberg said the court ruling will have no impact on those cases.

The impact of the decision reaches beyond allegations of clergy sexual abuse.

In one high-profile criminal investigation - involving six people who accused former LAPD Deputy Police Chief David Kalish of sexual abuse - all the alleged incidents occurred in the 1970s.

Michael Gougis, (818) 713-3762

michael.gougis(at)dailynews.com
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Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Article Type:Statistical Data Included
Date:Jun 27, 2003
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