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LIVE FROM THE HEADLINES

Many Child Abusers Freed After Supreme Court Ruled California Statute Unconstitutional

Aired July 10, 2003 - 19:39   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.

ANDERSON COOPER, CNN ANCHOR: Welcome back. We are live from Los Angeles. Want it talk about child sexual abuse a little bit. The effects of sexual abuse can last a lifetime, particularly if the victim is, in fact, a child. In 1993 California passed a law extending the statute of limitations allowing old sex abuse cases to be tried years later, that is, until the U.S. Supreme Court ruled the law, in fact, is unconstitutional. Now the Los Angeles's D.A.'s office saying the ruling means some convicted molesters will be released from jail. In addition, it means others accused but not convicted will avoid criminal trials altogether. Miguel Marquez has the details.
(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: This is the little kid I was when I first met wimpy.

MIGUEL MARQUEZ, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Lee Bashforth flips through memories, memories of his friend, his priest and ultimately, says Bashforth, his abuser, Father Michael Wempe.

LEE BASHFORTH, ALLEGED ABUSE VICTIM: We were taught a priest like Wempe had the ear of god, walked with god, and all respects, was god.

MARQUEZ: Bashforth says Father Wempe sexual abused him for nine years. Wempe's attorney says that it isn't true.

LEONARD LEVINE, DEFENSE ATTORNEY: By no means there was evidence beyond a reasonable doubt that Father Wempe committed any of these crimes.

MARQUEZ: In 2002, decades after the alleged abuse, Bashforth went to the police. More alleged victims came forward and after 15 months of investigation, Wempe was arrested and charged with 42 counts of molestation, involving Bashforth and several others. But just two weeks after his arrest, Wempe was released, no longer facing prison time, when the Supreme Court ruled it was unconstitutional for California to retroactively extend the statute of limitations for sex crimes.

WILLIAM HODGMAN, DEPUTY D.A. LOS ANGELES COUNTY: In a very real and emotional sense, the victims of old feel victimized once again. But this time by their judicial system.

MARQUEZ: For older cases like Bashforth's and the possibility of hundreds more statewide, there would be no chance of sending their alleged abusers to prison.

MICHAEL WEMPE, RETIRED PRIEST: I'm just sorry this ever had to happen. These kind of things happened and I'm happy that it's been dismissed and I'm looking forward to being able to defend myself in court.

MARQUEZ: Michael Wempe will still have to defend himself against abuse charges in civil proceedings, including charges from Bashforth who said it's not justice but as close as he can get. Miguel Marquez, CNN, Los Angeles.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

COOPER: Well we have two guests to discuss this unbelievably emotional issue. Mary Grant is a victim of sexual abuse. She join's us here. And Charles Gillingham is a Deputy District Attorney in Santa Clara County, California. He has the unhappy task of actually notifying victims when sex offenders are released. We appreciate both of you being with us.

Mary, I want to start off with you. You were 13 years old when the abuse which you alleged occurred -- began. Tell us about it, what happened?

MARY GRANT, ALLEGED SEX ABUSE VICTIM: When I was 13 I joined a church youth group and the priest, Father John Lenahan (ph), began encouraging me to come to church functions and youth functions and he began molesting me on the way home from one of those functions.

COOPER: And when was it that you told authorities about it?

GRANT: Well, church authorities first found out about it when my stepfather found sexually explicit letters that Father John Lenahan (ph) was writing to me. I was visiting my parents in another state while living here in California where the abuse was occurring and he was sending gifts and sexually explicit letters. He then wrote a letter to the LA Archdiocese complaining of the abuse and then Father Jon Lenahan (ph)admitted that he had molested me.

COOPER: And just recently you learned the unbelievable news that this person, who you say molested you, was being set free?

GRANT: Absolutely. It was a devastating day for myself and many other victims.

COOPER: When you first heard the news, I don't know if you heard it on the TV or someone called you, but, I hate to ask that question, what did you feel, but what went through your mind?

GRANT: I felt so much sadness and I felt a huge sense of betrayal again. My first thought was, what is wrong with this country? What court would rule to protect guilty predators instead of innocent children?

COOPER: Charles, you must get that question a lot. I mean, you actually have to call people on the telephone and tell them, in many cases, the person who molested you is being set free.

CHARLES GILLINGHAM, DEPUTY D.A. SANTA CLARA COUNTY, CA: Unfortunately, listening to Mary it's exactly the same type of conversation that we have had over the last 2 1/2 weeks. Expressing to us how could this possibly happen? Who made the decision? Is there an appeal? Unfortunately, having to tell them there's nothing we can do.

COOPER: What are some of the conversations you've had? What are some of the things people have said to you in some of the cases? Without naming names or anything.

GILLINGHAM: How can this possibly have happened? This person confessed, pled guilty, the jury found the person guilty. How is this that it never happened?

What's unfortunate is there is no where to go for these victims. We have the unfortunate task in our county of dealing with 175 cases that were prosecuted under this statute, 800 statewide. These are egregious child molesters who are going to be set free.

COOPER: Explain to us if you can and especially to our audience, who may not have been following this along, why was it the Supreme Court ruled this way? What was their rational?

GILLINGHAM: The rational was that, as early as 1988, the statute of limitations for child molest, which was anywhere from three to six years, had expired. The California legislature acknowledged that most victims don't come forward as children but come forward as adults. So they allowed us, in certain circumstances, to go back and prosecute old cases. What needs to be known out there for people who may come into contact with these individuals is we had to have independent corroboration, not just the victims's statement, in Mary's case multiple victims perhaps, and in many cases admissions by defendants.

These are egregious cases where, many times, the defendants confessed and the Supreme Court said it's unfair to the defendants, unfortunately, to go back and revive these cases.

COOPER: Mary, I mean, that term, unfair to the defendants, must get you very upset.

GRANT: Well, I am not alone, there's many victims just like myself, where this crime has been an ongoing, continuous crime, not only the sexual abuse, but living with the effects of the abuse and the cover up of the abuse. And so the only folks that benefit from this law being overturned are the perpetrators and those that shield them.

COOPER: Mary, I appreciate coming in and talking with us, I know it's difficult, but I really do appreciate it. And Charles, as well, thanks for joining us. I appreciate your comments as well, thank you.

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