Thursday, March 21, 2002

Time works against sex-abuse prosecutors

Cases difficult to prosecute because of old laws, wary victims

By Dan Horn,
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Prosecutors in Ohio and Kentucky are waiting today for details about decades-old sexual abuse allegations against Catholic priests.

        But even as they clamor for more information, prosecutors admit they have no idea what they will do if they get what they want.

        Sex-abuse cases are notoriously difficult to prosecute in the best of circumstances.

        In the priest cases, some of which date back 20 years, prosecutors likely would have to deal with fading memories, reluctant victims, confusing laws and a trail of cold evidence.

        “In cases like this,” said Hamilton County Prosecutor Mike Allen, “the passage of time always hurts you.”

        Mr. Allen and prosecutors in several counties have spent the past week asking church officials to turn over records related to allegations of misconduct.

        The uproar began when the Archdiocese of Cincinnati and the Diocese of Covington disclosed that they had substantiated allegations against several priests.

        Church officials say they followed the law, even though they did not report many of the cases.

        Most prosecutors say authorities should have been told about the allegations years ago so the prosecutors could determine whether to file criminal charges.

        Instead, they say, the cases have remained under wraps for so long that it will be difficult to pursue a criminal case.

        “You can see a whole myriad of problems when you're talking about something that's 10 years old, or older,” said Jack Porter, the Commonwealth attorney for Campbell County, Ky.

        The most immediate problem is getting the church to turn over records of the allegations. Between them, the two dioceses cover 29 counties and thousands of parishioners in Ohio and Kentucky.

        While Covington church officials have provided some details to prosecutors, those in Cincinnati have thus far refused to do so.

Fading memories, lost evidence

        Even if the church turns over everything, prosecutors will have a tough time investigating.

        Church officials in Cincinnati have said some victims did not want to contact police. If they were reluctant then, they may feel the same way now.

        “Prosecutors have to be very careful in how they handle this,” said Debra Armanini, the first assistant prosecutor in Montgomery County. “There are a multitude of reasons why victims do not come forward.”

        Other problems include the fading memory of victims and witnesses, as well as the difficulty in tracking down evidence years after the offense.

        And if the offense is many years old, the statute of limitations may prevent prosecutors from bringing charges even if they are able to prove their case.

        Perhaps the biggest legal hurdles are the state laws that cover who is required to report allegations of abuse. The ever-changing laws have been amended many times over the years and are more explicit now than when the abuse allegations arose.

        Mr. Allen cites a passage in the law from the 1970s that requires “persons rendering spiritual treatment through prayer” to immediately report accusations of abuse.

        But Mark VanderLaan, an attorney for the archdiocese, said that passage refers to “faith healers” who offer medical treatment.

        The law today seems more clear because it simply requires anyone acting in an “official or professional capacity” to report abuse. But even that is open to interpretations.

        Mr. Allen said it means the church must disclose allegations of abuse. But a recent Ohio attorney general's opinion said disclosure is not required if the victim comes forward as an adult, years after the offense occurred.

        “Apparently, they're going to split hairs,” Mr. Allen said. “I think (the law) is unequivocal.”

        Regardless of any confusion in the law, Ms. Armanini said church officials should have told law enforcement about the cases years ago.

        Instead, she said, the church acted alone as detective, prosecutor, judge and social worker.

        “The archdiocese took it upon itself to make all of these decisions,” Ms. Armanini said.


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