Accused priest to walk free |

Accused priest to walk free

Richard Somerville and The Associated Press

When word came of a court decision expected to free the priest that Terry McAteer says molested him as a child, Nevada County’s superintendent of schools felt an emptiness. So close to justice after 36 years, he realized he would never have peace of mind.

“I am very, very . . . ‘sad’ isn’t the word. I am hurt. We worked so long to get Peter Keegan off the streets and away from kids.”

The U.S. Supreme Court, with a 5-4 ruling in the case of a man accused of raping his young daughters decades ago, said that the government cannot retroactively erase statutes of limitations to allow prosecutions of old crimes.

The decision, nullifying a California law, might overturn as many as 800 child molestation convictions and pending cases, some of them involving Catholic priests, and bar the prosecution of dozens of other pending cases, such as Austin Peter Keegan.

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Keegan has been in a San Francisco jail since March, after he was captured in Mexico. He fled the U.S. after he was indicted on child molestation charges last fall, partly because grand jury testimony by McAteer, who told how Keegan brutally assaulted him at age 10 during a trip to Disneyland in 1967 – soon after the death of McAteer’s father, a leading San Francisco politician. (The Union told his story in March through a series titled “Betrayal of Faith.”)

Now it appears the defrocked priest will be back on the streets as early as this afternoon. As it happens, Keegan was in court Thursday for a pretrial motion, but his lawyer instead moved for dismissal because of the Supreme Court ruling. The decision was continued until this morning, but Erin Gallagher, a sex crimes investigator for the San Francisco District Attorney’s Office, said the judge has little choice but to set Keegan free.

“I have been calling victims all day,” said Gallagher of about two dozen people, such as McAteer, who were waiting to hear if trials of their alleged molesters could go forward. “They are sad, stunned, angry – you name it. The same way I feel.”

At his office in Nevada City, McAteer said: “The winners today are all the perpetrators of violence against children. The losers are a lot of innocent kids who thought they had justice.”

He said he had not thought about filing a civil suit against Keegan. “That’s not of any interest to me. I was focused on Peter Keegan not having access to children any more.”

The decision, he said, “is not life and death. I’ve been dealing with it for 36 years. But with him in jail the last three months, I really felt some peace of mind.”

McAteer wasn’t second-guessing the justices, despite the one-vote margin, he said. “That’s why they’re there – to interpret the law.”

But he confessed to being nervous the past few weeks, waiting for the decision to be handed down. “Now I’ll have to reconcile this within my own soul.”

Gallagher has said that Keegan’s crimes could include 80 individual cases. Despite complaints about the priest over the years from McAteer and others, Catholic Church leaders passed him from parish to parish in the San Francisco archdiocese and Santa Rosa diocese for more than 20 years.

The court split over a California law, the only one in the nation that allowed prosecutions for long-ago sex crimes. It was challenged by a 72-year-old man whose daughters said they were too afraid to report him to police until they were adults.

The majority, anchored by the court’s liberals, said it was fundamentally unfair for the government to change the rules after the fact.

In an angry dissent, four justices said that “when a child molester commits his offense, he is well aware the harm will plague the victim for a lifetime.”

The law should “show its compassion and concern when the victim at last can find the strength, and know the necessity to come forward,” Justice Anthony M. Kennedy wrote for the four. “The court now tells the victims their decision to come forward is in vain.”

Justice Stephen Breyer, writing for the majority, said that prosecuting child abusers is important “but there is also a predominating constitutional interest in forbidding the state to revive a long-forbidden prosecution.” He also said lawmakers would be tempted to “pick and choose when to act retroactively” and could act vindictively.

Breyer was joined by Justices John Paul Stevens, Sandra Day O’Connor, David H. Souter and Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

The decision also has implications for terrorism. The Bush administration had argued that a ruling against California would threaten the USA Patriot Act, which retroactively withdrew statutes of limitations in some terrorism cases. The law was passed shortly after the Sept. 11 attacks.

At issue Thursday was the case of Marion Stogner, a retired paper plant worker and veteran of the Korean War.

The Associated Press contributed to this story.

See the AP story on the Supreme Court ruling:

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