Judge off Church Case after Ruling

By Kimball Perry
The Cincinnati Post [Cincinnati OH]
Downloaded December 6, 2003

The Archdiocese of Cincinnati should lose a priest sex abuse lawsuit filed against it, a Hamilton County judge acknowledged Friday, but she said she just couldn't bring herself to make that ruling because she saw it as the exact opposite of a decision she made minutes earlier on a similar lawsuit.

As a result, the archdiocese received favorable rulings in both cases from Hamilton County Common Pleas Court Judge Melba Marsh, and she agreed to step aside from the second case at the request of attorneys for the plaintiff.

In the second case, archdiocese attorneys didn't respond in time to the suit filed by an unnamed man who said he was "molested and raped" by the Rev. Lawrence Strittmatter in the early 1980s. Marsh said the archdiocese should be found in default and that the unnamed man should win and be awarded money damages.

That's not what she did at Friday's hearing, though. Instead, the judge had archdiocese attorney Tim Mangan join the hearing via speaker telephone.

The judge informed Mangan and the attorneys for the accuser -- William Fecher and Ann Miller, who were in the courtroom -- that she should rule in favor of the accuser.

"The archdiocese indeed is in default of this particular case," Marsh said. "I know the legal thing to do, but it seems to me there is a right thing to do, and we seem to have lost sight of that."

Instead of ruling against the archdiocese, she did what she thought was the right thing to do by giving its attorneys until Monday to respond.

"We will take care of it," archdiocese Mangan promised after the hearing.

Marsh told the attorneys she was motivated by the fact that she had ruled exactly the opposite in another civil lawsuit in which the accuser said Strittmatter sexually abused him and the archdiocese knew about it or covered it up. She dismissed that case because the statute of limitations had expired.

Accusers can make allegations only after reaching the age of 18 and then, under Ohio's statute of limitations laws, have one year to file the suit.

Citing the same reason, at least three other Hamilton County Common Pleas judges have dismissed suits making similar allegations against priests and the archdiocese.

In Fecher and Miller's case, the archdiocese had until Dec. 2 to respond but didn't. Marsh said that entitled the unnamed man to a default judgment, but said sometimes more should be considered, especially in cases so similar.

"It didn't come easy because I recognize the pain of that particular (accuser who) -- needed to have the opportunity to have his or her day in court," Marsh said.

"I had no other choice."

Oh yes she did, Fecher and Miller said after hearing that Marsh had extended the deadline for an archdiocese response to Monday.

"She is allowing them to get off on technicalities," an upset Miller said immediately after the hearing.

"I think she bent over backward to protect the church," Fecher said.

Marsh is a devout Catholic who attended archdiocesan schools and went to college on an archdiocese scholarship -- background she has shared with attorneys involved in the civil lawsuits of priest sexual abuse or archdiocese cover-ups cases before her.

Miller and Fecher immediately asked for Marsh to step down from their case and have it assigned to another judge. Marsh agreed to do so.

Marsh shouldn't have allowed the archdiocese the additional time to respond, Fecher said, because the case isn't exactly like the dozens of others filed in Hamilton County against the church and priests.

They contend the archdiocese is guilty of fraud by covering up the allegations reported to the church by accusers -- and continued to cover them up until being convicted last month of failure to report crimes of priest sex abuse.

Fecher also was disturbed about the statute of limitations issue, saying that young children accusing priests of molestations have no knowledge of such legal issues and how they can raise them.

"How can a 12- or 14-year-old know a priest is molesting them or that the church is covering it up?" he asked.

Their client was 12 and a server at Our Lady of Victory Church and student at Our Lady of Victory School in Delhi Township in the fall of 1982 when, Fecher said, Strittmatter was the parish priest and taught classes at the school.

During those times, the suit claims, Strittmatter touched the boy's genitals and forced him to touch the priest's genitals, and Strittmatter "forcibly sexually molested, abused, battered, assaulted, sodomized and raped" the boy over a two-year period.

That kind of abuse, Fecher said, needs to be addressed.

"The abuse these victims suffer will continue until the church accepts responsibility and compensates them," he said.

As part of a historic agreement last month when the archdiocese was convicted of five counts of failing to report abuse by its priests, it agreed to set up a $3 million fund to compensate victims of priest abuse. To qualify for the fund, though, accusers have to drop all pending suits. They also must promise not to file any future suits against the archdiocese alleging abuse.

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