Hector Amezcua / hamezcua@sacbee.com

The Rev. Uriel Ojeda is accused of molesting a 14-year-old girl.

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Priest will learn soon if statements on child abuse can be used in court

Published: Wednesday, Jul. 3, 2013 - 12:00 am | Page 3B
Last Modified: Thursday, Jul. 4, 2013 - 11:31 am

Sacramento Superior Court Judge Eugene L. Balonon is expected to rule today whether the Rev. Uriel Ojeda's alleged admission to child molestation accusations can be used against him at his upcoming trial.

Ojeda's attorney, Jesse Ortiz, argued Tuesday that the young priest believed his statements to a church official and a private investigator were confidential and should be excluded under a state Evidence Code provision that protects clergy-penitent communications.

Deputy District Attorney Allison Dunham told the judge Ojeda had no expectation of confidentiality in the administrative communication he had with the church official, the Rev. Timothy Nondorf, a former staff member to Bishop Jaime Soto, and the private investigator, Joseph Sheehan, who worked on contract for the law firm that represents the Catholic Diocese of Sacramento.

Ojeda is accused in a seven-count complaint of molesting a girl who was younger than 14 while he worked at parishes in Woodland and Redding.

On Tuesday, the prosecution's expert witness in canonical law said Nondorf and Sheehan were acting in "external" and not spiritual capacities when they confronted Ojeda two years ago about the sexual abuse allegations that had been made against him. "The topic is not the priest's spiritual life, but information that would have come to the bishop … and his responsibilities to act and report it to the civil authorities," the witness, Monsignor Steven Callahan, testified.

The conversation "had nothing to do with spiritual growth and development and everything to do with an allegation brought to diocesan authorities that they needed to take action on," said Callahan, who is vicar general of the Roman Catholic Diocese of San Diego.

The testimony came in the third day of the pretrial hearing on a motion by Ortiz to suppress Ojeda's statements to Nondorf and Sheehan on Nov. 30, 2011, when they visited him in Redding with the purpose of bringing him back to Sacramento to face charges.

Deputy DA Dunham said in a court hearing last year that Ojeda admitted to the two men that he had molested the girl.

Nondorf and Sheehan later told Sacramento police about Ojeda's statements to them. The details of the priest's statements have not been made public, although Dunham generally described Ojeda's alleged actions at a bail review hearing in January 2012.

Ojeda testified Monday that he believed his statements were confidential and that nobody told him he had a right to a canonical, civil or criminal attorney. He said "it never crossed my mind" that his comments would be used against him in his criminal case.

Callahan said that Nondorf, in his contact with Ojeda, was only following "the essential norms" officially established by the U.S. Conference of Bishops in 2002 on how to deal with the burgeoning number of priest sexual abuse cases. All priests, he said, are "mandated reporters" who are required under the law to report to civil authorities credible allegations of sexual abuse made against members of the Catholic ministry.

Callahan contradicted several portions of the testimony offered Monday by the defense expert on canon law, Robert J.B. Flummerfelt, a Nevada lawyer. Flummerfelt testified that statements don't really exist unless they are written down, to which Callahan disagreed, saying of Ojeda, "He said what he said to Mr. Sheehan, and he said it in the presence of Father Nondorf, so it certainly exists."

Flummerfelt also suggested that Ojeda's statements to Sheehan and Nondorf were, in effect, coerced, because as a priest the defendant had an obligation to talk to them under the "vow of obedience" all priests take when they are ordained. Callahan said the vow applies only to administrative assignments and tasks set forth by the bishop.

Call The Bee's Andy Furillo, (916) 321-1141. Follow him on Twitter @andyfurillo.

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