Sacramento prosecutors have turned up the heat on the Rev. Uriel Ojeda, the priest accused of child molestation, saying if he does not accept their offer of an eight-year prison term by Friday, the deal likely will be yanked off the table.
The district attorney's hard line came down Wednesday after Sacramento Superior Court Judge Eugene L. Balonon refused to exclude from Ojeda's upcoming trial the Catholic priest's alleged admissions to Sacramento Diocese officials.
Prosecutors say Ojeda made the admissions when the accusations of child molestation were laid out to him by a priest representing Bishop Jaime Soto and by a private investigator who was working on behalf of the church's law firm.
Ojeda had tried to have the statements ruled inadmissable on grounds he made them under the protection of a clergy-penitent privilege.
Prosecutors had previously made the eight-year offer to Ojeda, 33, if he pleads out to the seven-count complaint that he molested a girl under 14 years of age when he worked at Holy Rosary Catholic Church in Woodland and at Our Lady of Mercy Parish in Redding.
If Ojeda doesn't take the deal and is convicted at trial, he faces a maximum term of 20 years in prison.
Balonon made his ruling around 9:30 a.m. and then recessed for an hour. Ojeda and his attorney, Jesse Ortiz, left the courtroom to confer and returned an hour later with Deputy District Attorney Allison Dunham. Ortiz and Dunham then went into the judge's chambers for 15 minutes before they came out and Balonon scheduled the next proceeding for Friday.
Before they broke for the day, Balonon told Ojeda, "You're on bail and your failure to appear would jeopardize your bail status, and if you fail to appear I will order your arrest without bail, do you understand?"
"Yes, your honor," said Ojeda, who is free on a $700,000 bond.
It had been widely anticipated around the courthouse that if Ojeda lost the motion to exclude his statements, he would agree to the eight-year offer. Although that did not happen Wednesday, the pressure began to mount on Ojeda even before he walked out of the courtroom.
A top official in the DA's Office confirmed Ojeda must accept the deal by the end of the week or it probably will be withdrawn.
"We anticipate if he accepts responsibility by Friday, that eight years will be the offer," Assistant Chief Deputy District Attorney Lori Greene said. "If he does not accept responsibility by Friday, that offer will be revoked, unless there is a change of circumstance."
Greene did not spell out what circumstance might call for prosecutors to pursue another plea deal in the future. A likely scenario unfavorable to them might be that a key witness, such as the alleged victim, doesn't want to testify or would be unavailable to testify. There is nothing to suggest, however, that any such occurrence is even remotely in the offing in the Ojeda case.
Ortiz said he was disappointed in Balonon's ruling: "I felt the privilege applied. But I understand the court's reasoning. It was well thought out. We have to deal with it."
Ortiz declined to comment on the possibility the eight-year offer might be withdrawn. He said he has "no idea" if his client might take the deal Friday.
Dunham declined to comment.
In his ruling Wednesday, Balonon had to decide if Ojeda had an expectation of confidentiality when the priest gave statements to the Rev. Timothy Nondorf, an aide at the time to Bishop Soto, and to Joseph Sheehan, a private investigator working on contract with the law firm of Sweeney & Green, which represents the Catholic Diocese of Sacramento.
Nondorf and Sheehan visited Ojeda at his parish in Redding on Nov. 30, 2011, to inform him of the allegations, remove him from his ministry and take him back to Sacramento to face charges. Nondorf and Sheehan later related Ojeda's comments to Sacramento police.
Balonon said outright that whatever it was that Ojeda said to Nondorf and Sheehan - the contents of which were not disclosed during three days of pretrial hearings - the priest had no expectation of confidentiality.
"The statements are not protected under the clergy-penitent privilege," Balonon said in his ruling from the bench.
Ojeda had testified Monday that he thought the communications to Nondorf and Sheehan would be kept in confidence.
"I don't find that is a credible assertion," Balonon said, given that Ojeda also testified that he knew Nondorf and Sheehan, as "mandated reporters," had a duty to report evidence of child molestation to police. "He could not have thought his statement would be held in confidence," the judge said.
Balonon said the only way the statements could have been considered confidential would be in a confessional setting during the Catholic sacrament of reconciliation. In his testimony Monday, Ojeda said he did not confess in the sacramental use of the term. He said he still thought he had an expectation of privilege in the context of his seeking spiritual guidance and development.
"I don't know what he actually said," McGeorge School of Law professor John E.B. Myers said in an interview, "but if he admitted that he did it, he better make the best bargain he can get."
Call The Bee's Andy Furillo, (916) 321-1141. Follow him on Twitter @andyfurillo.