First-time offenders entitled to diversion program
Published: Wednesday, Nov 29, 2006By STEPHAN PASSALACQUA
Emotions run high in the area of child sexual abuse, particularlywhen committed by those who abuse positions of trust. The Sonoma CountyDistrict Attorney’s Office takes its responsibility seriously to ensurethat these cases are reported promptly so that we may take immediateaction to bring the perpetrators to justice. Under California’s childabuse mandated reporting law, failure to report suspected cases ofabuse is a misdemeanor.
The intent of the mandated reporting lawis to protect the most vulnerable members of our community, ourchildren. Immediately reporting suspected abuse allows law enforcementto take swift measures to apprehend the perpetrators and ensure thesafety of any child at risk.
In these cases, there is an urgency that will never be compromised.
Thatis why the Sonoma County District Attorney’s Office has acteddecisively to hold Bishop Daniel Walsh accountable for violating thelaw. Consistent with past practice, and as has been the case this yearwith more than 1,000 people facing misdemeanor charges, Bishop Walsh iseligible to take part in what is known as a pre-filing diversionprogram. If he does not successfully complete this rigorous four-monthprogram, the misdemeanor charge for failing to report suspected childabuse will automatically be filed.
California law providesthat a first-time offender diversion program may be established in anycounty. Sonoma County has had its program since 1995, run by theCalifornia Human Develop-ment Corporation. This program holds accusedviolators accountable for their actions, it has a high success rate,and it is widely respected throughout the judicial system as anefficient and effective way to address first-time offenders. BishopWalsh is entitled to participate and receive the same treatment asanyone else. No better, no worse.
All clergy members are subjectto the same laws as other mandated reporters, such as doctors, nurses,teachers and social workers. The Diocese of Santa Rosa has receivedspecific training on the mandated reporting laws, and even establishedtheir own protocol reinforcing the law’s requirements. Bishop Walshshould have immediately reported suspected child abuse by FranciscoOchoa. Walsh, himself, subsequently admitted he should not have delayedreporting. We are holding him accountable for that delay.
Asan elected district attorney, I am charged with seeking justice. Myoffice works aggressively to hold the guilty accountable, protect theinnocent, and treat victims and their families with respect anddignity. We also have a responsibility to be objective and fair incarrying out our duty to enforce the law. When we received the reportsinvolving Francisco Ochoa, we immediately filed felony counts of childmolestation. When notified that there may have been a violation of themandated reporting laws, we asked the Sheriff’s Department to conduct aseparate investigation. Our resolve was unambiguous and unwavering.
Weare committed to doing everything possible to protect children frombecoming victims of abuse and the mandated reporting law is animportant tool to achieve that goal. We hope that this case will raisepublic awareness so that all mandated reporters will honor their dutyand act immediately on behalf of our children.
(Stephan Passalacqua is the Sonoma County district attorney.)
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