SANTA ROSA, Calif. – Sonoma County investigators said they have enough evidence to pursue criminal charges against a bishop who waited several days before reporting allegations of child sexual abuse by a fellow priest.
The delay by Santa Rosa Bishop Daniel Walsh may have allowed the Rev. Xavier Ochoa to flee to Mexico.
If prosecutors pursue the case, it would be the first time a U.S. bishop was charged with failing to disclose allegations of abuse. The final decision rests with the district attorney's office.
The sheriff's office said in a statement late Friday that it forwarded its investigation to the district attorney's office. A spokeswoman for the prosecutor did not return calls seeking comment.
Ochoa, 68, worked at St. Francis Solano Church in Sonoma before admitting misconduct in an April 28 meeting with Walsh and two other church officials. He was charged with 10 felony counts and one misdemeanor count of child sex abuse involving three boys.
Walsh has publicly apologized for failing to report the alleged misconduct immediately. The three-day lag in notifying law enforcement gave Ochoa ample time to go to Mexico, where authorities believe he remains.
State law requires clergymen to immediately report any suspicions of child sex abuse and to follow up by fax or e-mail within 36 hours. A violation has a potential penalty of six months in jail and a $1,000 fine.
Walsh said in an interview last week that he never tried to protect Ochoa, calling the priest an "unsympathetic character" whom he immediately stripped of his duties.
"If something wrong has been done, I have no problem doing the right thing," Walsh told The Associated Press during an interview at his diocesan office. "I have no problem turning him in."
The Sonoma County Sheriff's Department said in June it was unlikely any church officials would face criminal charges for the tardy reporting. A sheriff's department spokesman did not immediately return a call seeking comment on the apparent change of course late Friday.
"We hope the D.A. will pursue criminal charges against any church officials who helped, by action or inaction, an admitted sex offender flee the country," Barbara Blaine, president of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, said in an e-mail Friday.
Earlier this month, Walsh issued an apology to the diocese, which stretches all the way to Oregon, saying he made an error in judgment.
"The reading of my motives have been so wrong — that I waited so he could escape, that I was covering up," he said. "The delay was not premeditated. It was a human mistake ... I don't deal with this every day."