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Bans on Gay Sex Ruled Unconstitutional; California Molestation Law Struck Down

Abuse: Hundreds of convictions will be tossed out and prosecutions dropped, some involving priests.

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

California violated the Constitution when it passed a law to revive criminal prosecutions in long-ago sexual-abuse cases, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled Thursday in a decision that will affect hundreds of molestation cases statewide.

The best known of the cases are those involving Roman Catholic priests, more than 20 of whom have been arrested statewide in the last 18 months for allegedly abusing children. Nearly all those cases will now have to be dismissed.

Beyond the priests, however, are hundreds more cases that do not involve clergy -- parents who abused their children, teachers who abused students, police officers who molested Scouts.

State officials did not have a precise count of how many convicted molesters would now be released from prison or how many pending prosecutions would have to be abandoned. But the law has been used in roughly 800 cases since it took effect in 1994, said Hallye Jordan, spokeswoman for the California attorney general's office.

The case that prompted the court's 5-4 ruling is an example of the non-clerical cases. It involves a 72-year-old man, Marion Stogner, a retired paper plant worker and Korean War veteran who is now living on an Indian reservation in Arizona. In 1998, Stogner was indicted on charges of having raped his daughters repeatedly between 1955 and 1973.

At the time the offenses allegedly occurred, the time limit for prosecuting the crimes would have been three years.

But in 1993, the Legislature changed the law to say that accused abusers could be prosecuted in cases of significant sexual contact so long as the charges were brought within one year of when authorities were first notified. The change was made retroactive.

The effect was to dramatically expand the number of cases that could be prosecuted, reviving hundreds of long-dormant cases. The California Supreme Court upheld the new statute of limitations in 2001.

The new law opened the way to prosecution of many priests in cases that victims advocates say were hidden for years by church officials.

In the Los Angeles Archdiocese, criminal charges are pending against 10 priests and a seminarian, and "nearly all, if not all, will be dismissed," said Los Angeles County Dist. Atty. Steve Cooley.

The case of Father Carl Sutphin, 71, a retired priest from Ventura County who is charged with 14 counts of child molestation involving seven boys during the late 1960s and '70s, also is likely to be affected. Sutphin pleaded not guilty to those charges last month and remains free on bail.

But while prosecuting child abusers is a laudable goal, "there is also a predominating constitutional interest in forbidding the state to revive a long-forbidden prosecution," Justice Stephen G. Breyer wrote for the majority. If the California law was permitted to stand, it would tempt legislators to "pick and choose when to act retroactively," Breyer wrote.

Changing the rules retroactively was a clear violation of the Constitution's ban on laws that are "ex post facto," meaning after the fact, the majority held.

"California's law subjects an individual ... to prosecution long after the state has, in effect, granted an amnesty," Breyer wrote. "It retroactively withdraws a complete defense to prosecution after it has already attached," he added. " 'Unfair' seems to us a fair characterization."

Justices Sandra Day O'Connor, David H. Souter, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and John Paul Stevens joined Breyer's opinion.

Justice Anthony M. Kennedy issued a stinging dissent.

It is often difficult for a victim of sexual abuse to muster the courage to go to authorities and report an abuser, who in many cases is a figure of authority in the victim's life, he wrote. The law should "show its compassion and concern when the victim at last can find the strength, and know the necessity," Kennedy wrote.

"The court now tells the victims their decision to come forward is in vain."

Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist and Associate Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas joined the dissent. Three of the dissenters -- Kennedy, Scalia and Thomas -- were raised as Catholics.

Spillover Effect

In addition to its impact on California's sex-abuse law, the ruling may also have an impact on the federal government's anti-terror efforts.

In a brief, the Bush administration had asked the justices to uphold California's law. They warned that a decision striking down the California law could imperil aspects of the Patriot Act, the anti-terror statute enacted after the Sept. 11 attacks. The Patriot Act had eliminated an existing eight-year time limit on prosecuting terrorism cases that involve death or serious bodily injury.

The administration also has proposed legislation that would eliminate the statute of limitations in cases covering child abduction and in instances where a perpetrator was identified through DNA evidence, the brief noted.

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