Bill Targets Omission in Sex Abuse Reporting

By Michelle Guido
San Jose Mercury News [San Jose CA]
Downloaded March 29, 2003

The law says people who take care of developmentally disabled adults must report suspected physical abuse and neglect, but not sexual abuse.

A state assemblywoman and a Santa Clara County prosecutor are trying to change that.

While prosecuting a priest last year for molesting a mentally retarded kitchen worker at a Jesuit retreat in Los Gatos, Deputy District Attorney Ben Field was faced with the disturbing loophole.

"The church was not under a legal obligation to report the sex crimes they found out about simply because sex offenses were not listed as something they had to report," Field said. "Obviously, I'm not talking about whether they had a moral obligation to report, but sex crimes currently are not on that list -- and they need to be."

The Dependent Person Protection Act, written by Assemblywoman Sally Lieber, D-San Jose, makes several changes to the state's penal code, welfare and institutions code and evidence code in an attempt to better protect dependent adults, the elderly and children.

The bill has the potential to prevent prolonged abuse, Field said. In the Los Gatos case, the two mentally retarded men had been sexually abused for what may have been three decades. Depositions from a civil suit showed some high-ranking clergy members at the center had been told about the abuse as early as 1995.

Among the bill's proposed changes:
  • The law would require mandated reporters -- including counselors, caretakers and members of the clergy -- to notify authorities such as police, social services or adult protective services of any suspected sexual abuse.
  • State law allows children under 10 to simply "promise to tell the truth," instead of taking the standard witness oath. The bill would afford the same consideration to dependent people.
  • Under the state's evidence code, judges are allowed to take special care in protecting witnesses under 14 from harassment, embarrassment and inappropriate questions. Lieber's bill would require the same protection for dependent people.
Lieber introduced the legislation in December, on the day she was sworn in.

"I really thought a lot about what I wanted my first bill to be," Lieber said. After she was elected in November, Lieber attended a luncheon in San Jose where she asked audience members for ideas for legislation. Field approached her immediately after the lunch and told Lieber about what he saw as outrageous loopholes in the law.

"He told me that these protections were really needed for dependent adults, and I found it very compelling," Lieber said. "I think a lot of people in public office -- women in particular -- really have as their mission to take care of the most vulnerable people in society."

The priest that Field prosecuted, the Rev. Edward Thomas Burke, 81, was sentenced in June to two years in state prison for molesting one of the victims for several years. Burke had pleaded guilty to committing a lewd act on a dependent adult, a felony.

Another Jesuit, Brother Charles Leonard Connor, was convicted in 2001 of committing a lewd act on another victim -- also a mentally retarded adult who was a kitchen worker at the Sacred Heart Jesuit Center in Los Gatos. Connor is free after serving six months of home detention.

In September, the California Province of the Society of Jesus agreed to pay a total of $7.5 million to the two mentally retarded men. The settlement marked a powerful end to a case in which the complaints of the two victims were ignored for years -- until Los Gatos dress shop owner Holly Ilse emerged as their champion.

It was Ilse who badgered authorities for more than three years, until they took notice of the abuse. Now, each of the men lives in his own two-bedroom apartment in Los Gatos, and with the help of "companions" from Hope Rehabilitative Services in San Jose, are able to live independently.

This week, Ilse applauded Field and Lieber for proposing the legislation.

"Maybe it'll be a lot easier to criminally prosecute people in the future," said Ilse, adding that the two victims in the Los Gatos case are "doing as well as can be expected.

"But it's going to be a long haul," she said. "That's what people need to know, that you're never the same once that has happened to you."


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