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Even Confessed Abusers May Go Free

As many as 800 people have been prosecuted under the revised statute of limitations, though no one knows how many are imprisoned.

June 27, 2003|Jean Guccione and Richard Winton | Times Staff Writers

Before shuffling off to prison last fall to begin serving a life sentence for molesting his children decades earlier, retired schoolteacher Albert Rosen, 76, apologized for any harm he had done to his son and daughter.

Now the former Ventura County school board member, as well as hundreds of other convicted child molesters, will probably be released from prison after the U.S. Supreme Court struck down a law Thursday that allowed prosecutors to file cases even after legal deadlines had passed.

Although the decision will have the most visible impact on the ongoing prosecution of Roman Catholic priests accused of molesting children, clerics make up only a small portion of those prosecuted in the state since the law was retroactively changed in 1994.

Probing Memories

In the years since, as many as 800 people statewide, including teachers, priests, a bus driver and even an Orange County judge, have been charged and prosecuted for molesting children decades earlier. The old cases have been difficult to build, requiring police officers and prosecutors to ask potential witnesses to recall memories often decades old, with corroborating evidence often hard to come by.

But convictions have been won. No one knows for sure how many are imprisoned in such cases. The victims range from young children to teenagers.

In some instances, the abusers admitted their actions -- although the Supreme Court ruling makes moot the cases even of confessed molesters who were not prosecuted within the period allowed by the statute of limitations in effect at the time of their crimes.

In most cases, the alleged crimes are eerily similar -- an adult gains a child's trust and commits abuse. In coming weeks, prosecutors throughout the state will have to determine which pending cases should be dismissed and which of hundreds of convictions should be overturned.

The ruling comes too late for one former priest sought on allegations of abuse. Siegfried F. Widera plunged to his death from a balcony last month as U.S. authorities closed in on him in Mexico. He was being sought on 42 molestation counts involving boys in Wisconsin and Orange County in the 1970s and 1980s.

Mexican authorities said Widera, 62, committed suicide by jumping from a hotel window as they tried to arrest him on the U.S. warrant. Yet, with the new ruling, the charges against Widera would probably have been thrown out, leaving him to face only allegations that he fled to avoid prosecution.

Another high-profile case -- against former Orange County Superior Court Judge Ronald C. Kline, who was accused of molesting a 14-year-old boy more than two decades ago -- will probably be dropped, legal authorities said Thursday.

For Kline, the latest development is the second round of good news this month. Two weeks ago, a federal judge threw out most of the evidence in a separate child pornography case pending against him.

Kline's attorney in both cases, Paul S. Meyer, praised the Supreme Court decision, saying it "confirmed the rule of law" and "was in line with our earlier motion to dismiss."

Assistant Dist. Atty. Rosanne Froeberg, who heads the Orange County office's sex crimes unit, said prosecutors for Kline's and all the other cases are being asked to set court dates as soon as possible to deal with the decision. "Though we are disappointed by the ruling, we will, of course, be abiding by it," she said.

The next step for Froe- berg's unit will be more difficult. The prosecutors are combing through a database to find convicted defendants affected by the ruling. She expects the names on that list to be fewer than two dozen, and hopes to have it completed within a week.

More than a dozen prosecutions of alleged sex crimes in San Bernardino County could be dropped, including the well-publicized case against Father Peter Luque, said Chief Deputy Dist. Atty. John Kochis.

Luque, 68, is charged with sexually abusing a 16-year-old boy in 1966 in San Bernardino. He faces 10 additional charges of molesting a teenage boy in 1967 and 1969 in Colton.

The priest resigned in March as pastor of the 6,700-family St. Edward Catholic Church in Corona.

"We are discussing the implications now," Kochis said. "In the last two years, we have convicted several people under this statute. Absent that statute, we would not be able to continue with these active cases."

Just last week, Michael Wempe, 63, was arrested in Seal Beach for allegedly molesting five boys between 1977 and 1986.

Wempe, who was on the way to a golf course at the time of his arrest, was charged Monday with 42 counts and held in lieu of $2-million bail. A judge ordered his release on his own recognizance Thursday.

Two brothers accused him in a civil lawsuit of molesting them when they were 8 and 12, after the priest was assigned to St. Jude Church in Westlake Village in 1974. A third person also sued Wempe alleging molestation in the 1970s.

As with the cases involving priests, others accused and convicted had played trusted roles in society.

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