Thursday, May 02, 2002

Priest impossible to prosecute


Statute of limitations has run out on sexual abuse cases

By Dan Horn, dhorn@enquirer.com
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Prosecutors in two Ohio counties say they will not be able to pursue criminal charges against a Dayton, Ohio, priest accused of sexually abusing a child.

        Authorities in Shelby and Darke counties launched investigations last week after a former parishioner, a man now in his 30s, accused the Rev. Thomas Hopp of sexually abusing him in the early 1980s.

        But prosecutors in both counties have determined that the statute of limitations for the case expired at least 10 years ago, making it impossible for them to charge Father Hopp with a crime.

        “It's very frustrating,” Shelby County Prosecutor Jim Stevenson said Wednesday.

        If not for the statute of limitations, which sets time limits for the prosecution of crimes, Mr. Stevenson said the allegations against Father Hopp would warrant a felony charge and a potential prison sentence.

        Darke County Prosecutor Richard Howell agreed the time limit has expired. But he said the Darke County case most likely would not result in charges anyway because Father Hopp's behavior there did not rise to the level of a crime.

        “I'd categorize it as inappropriate contact, but from what I've seen, it's not criminal conduct,” Mr. Howell said.

        The two investigations involved the same accuser, who claims the abuse first occurred in 1980 while Father Hopp was assigned to St. Michael Church in Fort Loramie.

        Father Hopp, a Price Hill native, served at churches and Catholic schools across Greater Cincinnati in the decade before that incident allegedly occurred.

        The accuser also claimed he was abused while visiting Father Hopp in the early 1980s at St. Denis parish in Versailles.

        The allegations were included in a letter the man sent to the Archdiocese of Cincinnati about a month ago.

        Church officials say Father Hopp has admitted the allegations were “substantially true.” He was placed on administrative leave last week from his job as pastor at Queen of Martyrs near Dayton.

        Church officials have said they received another allegation about Father Hopp in 1997 while he was at Queen of Martyrs. That allegation was made by someone who claimed the priest had behaved suspiciously around a boy.

        But when the boy's parents were notified, church officials say, they said their son knew nothing about the allegation.

        Montgomery County Prosecutor Mathias Heck expects to receive information this week from the archdiocese about the allegation. A spokesman said he did not know how long it would take to investigate the matter.

        Mr. Stevenson and Mr. Howell needed only a week to determine that the allegations against Father Hopp in their counties could not be prosecuted.

        “Regretfully, there is little that my office can do to help you hold Father Hopp accountable for his actions,” Mr. Stevenson wrote to the priest's accuser in a letter explaining his decision.

        The statute of limitations typically bars prosecution after two years in misdemeanor cases and after six years in the more serious felony cases.

        Child abuse cases are complicated because the clock does not start running on the statute until the child turns 18, or until he tells a “responsible adult” about the allegation.

        In the Shelby and Darke county cases, time would have run out in the early 1990s.

        State law was changed in 1999 to allow as much as 20 years to prosecute some cases, but that law does not apply to cases prior to 1999.

        Church officials, who have been criticized by some for their handling of abuse cases, said the Hopp case shows how the church, at times, can take swifter action than law enforcement.

        In Father Hopp's case, that meant an immediate suspension.

        “Sometimes we can take action when civil authorities can't,” said archdiocese spokesman Dan Andriacco.

        But prosecutors in Cincinnati and across the country have battled with church officials in recent months over the disclosure of records related to abuse allegations.

        Mr. Heck and Hamilton County Prosecutor Mike Allen both have launched grand jury investigations into old allegations. The statute of limitations also may be a problem in those cases.

        The investigations began two months ago when church officials disclosed that “fewer than five” priests remain with the archdiocese despite substantiated abuse allegations.

        Father Hopp, who was accused more recently, was not among those.

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