Accused molesters released from San Francisco area jails

SAN FRANCISCO -- More than a dozen accused child molesters, many of them former priests, have been released in Northern California since the U.S. Supreme Court invalidated a 1994 law extending the statute of limitations for such cases.

At least 16 people had been released in the San Francisco Bay Area by Friday night, one day after the high court's ruling, and almost that many could be freed in the next week, including a defrocked monsignor and the winningest high school boys basketball coach in California history.

The Northern California releases accompanied similar decisions in Southern California, where at least two former priests were freed because of the new ruling.

One of the highest-profile cases affected by the decision was that of Austin Peter Keegan, a former priest who was released in San Francisco on Friday.

Keegan, 67, was arrested while working at a Mexican orphanage in March, and charged with more than 100 counts of molesting children in the 1960s. He was released on his own recognizance as prosecutors tried to determine if some charges might still be valid.

Among other former priests released Friday in Northern California were Stephen Kiesle, who was accused of molesting five children while he was a priest more than 25 years ago in Fremont, and Robert Ponciroli, who was accused of molesting altar boys in Contra Costa County in the 1970s and 1980s.

Charges may be dismissed during court hearings scheduled Monday for two other high-profile cases, including one that did not involve a member of the clergy. Patrick O'Shea, a defrocked monsignor in the San Francisco archdiocese, was charged with molesting three boys in the 1960s and 1970s. Mike Phelps, the former boys basketball coach at Bishop O'Dowd High School in Oakland and the winningest high school coach in state history, was charged with molesting an 11-year-old boy more than 30 years ago.

Many of the men who were released had not been convicted, and some had maintained their innocence.

Prosecutors bemoaned the releases, but said they had little choice.

"Needless to say, we're crushed by it," said San Francisco District Attorney Terence Hallinan.

The Supreme Court ruled that states may not retroactively eliminate a statute of limitations and prosecute people for crimes on which the previous statute had already expired.

California prosecutors said some charges in the affected cases might still be salvaged. The state Department of Justice advised district attorneys that at the time California enacted the now-invalid law, in 1994, the existing statute for molestation cases was six years. That means people could still be prosecuted for crimes occurring after 1988.


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