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D.A. says no charges for bishop

Walsh to attend counseling program

Published: Monday, November 20, 2006 at 11:50 a.m.
Last Modified: Monday, November 20, 2006 at 11:50 a.m.

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Statement released today ends speculation over Walsh's fate

Bishop Daniel Walsh of the Santa Rosa Catholic Diocese will avoid criminal charges for delaying a report of suspected child sex abuse if he successfully completes a four-month counseling diversion program.

Sonoma County District Attorney Stephan Passalacqua said Monday the decision to offer diversion in lieu of filing charges was in no way letting Walsh off the hook for failing to immediately report the actions of Francisco Xavier Ochoa, a Sonoma priest wanted on 10 felony counts of sexual molestation.

Violation of the state’s mandatory reporting law of suspected child abuse, a misdemeanor crime, carries a potential penalty of six months in jail and a $1,000 fine. But Passalacqua said that since Walsh has no prior criminal record, he is entitled to the diversion program.

“We certainly hope that our decision involving Bishop Walsh will send a clear message to all mandated reporters of the importance of immediately reporting to law enforcement any child abuse or elderly abuse any injury of an assault,” said Passalacqua.

Walsh said Monday afternoon that diocese attorney Dan Galvin received a form, faxed from the District Attorney’s Office, that details the diversion program. Galvin then informed Walsh of Passalacqua’s decision.

“I’m just pleased that finally a decision was made,” said Walsh. “I said from the very beginning I acknowledged my mistake. And I said I would abide by whatever the decision the district attorney rendered after his investigation.”

Walsh has 21 days to formally agree to the diversion program, but he said Monday that he would complete the program.

Ochoa, who worked as a priest at St. Francis Solano Church in Sonoma, remains a fugitive, believed to have fled the country May 6, about a week after admitting to Walsh and other church officials of sexual improprieties with several children.

Advocates for victims of sex abuse by priests criticized the district attorney’s decision.

“It’s a sweetheart deal,” said Joey Piscitelli of Martinez, a Bay Area leader of Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, national support group known as SNAP.

“We still have serial molesters in Santa Rosa and we still have people who harbor them and protect them. It's a real letdown,” said Piscitelli, standing in front of the Sonoma County Courthouse.

Piscitelli won a $600,000 verdict from a Contra Costa County jury in July for alleged molestation by a Catholic priest more than 30 years ago.

Passalacqua’s decision comes more than two-and-a-half months after Sheriff’s investigators handed Passalacqua a crime report they said contained enough evidence to charge Walsh for violating state laws that require certain professionals, including clergy, to report instances of suspected abuse.

On April 28, Ochoa told Walsh and church officials that he offered a Sonoma boy $100 for a strip tease and then kissed him on the lips. Further investigation by the Sheriff’s Department uncovered a pattern of abuse involving three victims from separate families.

It wasn’t until May 1, three days after the April 28 meeting, that the diocese’s lawyer faxed a letter to the county’s Child Protective Services, according to information from Walsh. The attorney sent the report by fax to the Sheriff’s Department on May 2. The report was resent May 3 because the Sheriff’s Department could not locate the fax.

Critics say the delay may have allowed Ochoa time to flee the country to Mexico, where U.S. Marshal’s are now trying to find him.

California law requires certain professionals, including teachers, doctors, therapists and clergy, to report suspected child abuse immediately by phone and in writing within 36 hours.

According to the District Attorney’s Office, first time misdemeanor offenders are referred to the Adult Diversion Services program, a four-month counseling program run by the California Human Development Corporation.

No charges will be filed against Walsh if he successfully completes the program.

If you are willing to comment on the district attorney's decision for possible publication in Tuesday's Press Democrat, please e-mail your comment, name and phone number to Staff Writer Guy Kovner, gkovner@pressdemocrat.com.

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