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Published: Wednesday, 3/9/2005

Diocese to allow review of files from '02 search

BY ROBIN ERB
BLADE STAFF WRITER

Lucas County prosecutors will once again review files from the Toledo Catholic Diocese following an informal meeting Monday of prosecutors and Thomas Pletz, a diocesan attorney.

But saying she was bound by attorney's ethics rules and criminal statutes of limitations, Prosecutor Julia Bates cautioned that the inspection most likely will not lead to criminal charges, as victims have demanded for years.

Instead, she characterized it as a "voluntary production of information" by the diocese to make sure documents that prosecutors reviewed in 2002 are the same papers that police saw during a search of the diocesan office in September.

"We just want to re-examine those records, make sure they are the same ones we already reviewed," she said.

She said she must trust the diocese in turning over all allegations of child abuse in such an agreement. The move takes place three weeks after The Blade revealed that police, with a court order, twice searched the diocese last year during its investigation of the 1980 murder of Sister Margaret Ann Pahl.

During the second search, police found records alleging child abuse, but did not seize the documents.

In 2002, as clergy abuse scandals unfolded across the United States, the diocese and Mrs. Bates' office signed a cordial agreement in which the diocese stated it would turn over any child abuse files for review by prosecutors.

Assistant prosecutors Lori Olender and Lance Keiffer then spent several days reviewing diocesan files of allegations of child abuse.

In each allegation, they found that the criminal statute of limitations - either six or 20 years, depending on the date of the alleged incident and when the accuser turned 18 years old - had expired. That meant prosecutors could not press criminal charges, she said.

Though Mrs. Bates said she found it "troubling" that some priests seemingly were not disciplined in those cases, she said a lack of administrative action on the part of the church is not a crime.

Then, last year, homicide detectives who reopened the 1980 case of the murdered nun served search warrants twice on the diocesan office in downtown Toledo, looking for what they believed were "secret archives" mandated by canon law.

Detectives hoped to find clues to the strangulation and stabbing death of Sister Margaret Ann Pahl, for which the Rev. Gerald Robinson is now charged. But Bishop Leonard Blair told them that such "secret archives" do not exist.

Calls to the diocese and to Mr. Pletz yesterday were not returned.

Victims' supporters said they were happy, but skeptical, of Mrs. Bates' move. Prosecutors elsewhere have refused to be stymied by statutes of limitations, they noted.

In Cincinnati, for example, prosecutors who couldn't prosecute on individual cases of alleged abuse instead charged the diocese with five counts of failing to file a felony report. In Detroit, prosecutors convicted a priest of a 30-year-old abuse case, arguing that the statute of limitations didn't apply because the cleric had moved out of state.

And late last year, Missouri's Supreme Court held that prosecutors could file charges against a priest for allegations of abuse in the 1970s because no statute of limitations existed then on sodomy laws.

"I think a fair amount has changed since 2002," said David Clohessy, national director of Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests. "Generally, police and prosecutors have become more creative and more assertive in finding ways around the statutes of limitations."

In Columbus today, victims supporters may testify in front of the Senate's judiciary-criminal justice committee, which is considering a bill requiring clerics to report accusations of child abuse.

Following emotional pleas last week from SNAP representatives, some senators are considering a change in the bill that also could suspend temporarily the civil statute of limitations in clergy abuse cases.

"This is all about timing," said Sen. Marc Dann, Democrat from the Youngstown area and a member of the committee. "We have the right opportunity to do something positive here."

Contact Robin Erb at:

robinerb@theblade.com

or 419-724-6133.



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