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Senate Panel OKs Bill to Extend Priest Case Deadline

The measure would allow more time to file charges as court settles dispute with diocese.

March 26, 2003|William Lobdell | Times Staff Writer

SACRAMENTO — State legislation that would freeze the statute of limitations before time runs out to prosecute scores of Los Angeles-area Roman Catholic priests accused of sexual abuse got a boost Tuesday when a key Senate committee unanimously endorsed the measure.

The bill, proposed last month by the Los Angeles district attorney's office, would extend the deadline to file criminal charges against clerics until the courts decide whether Cardinal Roger M. Mahony and the priests under investigation have a right to keep church documents private.

Testifying before the Public Safety Committee, L.A. Deputy Dist. Atty. Bill Hodgman said that without the proposed law, "well over 100 investigations" into clergy sexual misconduct could be jeopardized.

State lawmakers are scrambling to get the bill passed before the one-year statute of limitations expires on the first cases, beginning April 8.

The Senate is scheduled to vote Thursday on the bill, which has no formal opposition, and an Assembly committee is expected to hear it next Tuesday. Because it is emergency legislation, the bill needs a two-thirds majority to pass.

The church will not take a position on the bill, an archdiocesan spokesman said.

The proposed legislation would modify a California law that allows prosecutors to file charges against an alleged sexual abuser no matter how old the case, so long as the charges are filed within one year of the victim's reporting the incidents to authorities. The law, passed in 1994, was upheld by the state Supreme Court in 1999.

Mahony's recent attempt to invoke a "prelate privilege" on any communication between bishops and priests created the need for the legislation, prosecutors said. Church officials argue that priest-bishop confidentiality is a foundation of the Catholic religion, and that civil interference in that violates the free exercise of religion.

Without the church's internal documents, many of the investigations remain at a standstill. To file criminal charges in these older cases, there must be corroborative evidence. Law enforcement officials said they believe that resides in the unreleased church documents.

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