Victims of Abuse Victims Again

Cincinnati Enquirer [Columbus OH]
March 30, 2006

In a legislative staredown over whether to allow victims to file lawsuits for old instances of child sex abuse, the Senate blinked first and the Roman Catholic Church won.

A reluctant Senate gave final approval yesterday to a Housepassed bill that requires church officials to report suspected instances of abuse and creates an Internet registry of unconvicted sex offenders who are found liable in a civil case.

After heavy lobbying by Ohio Catholic bishops, the House stripped a provision that would have given victims a one-year window, or look-back, to file a lawsuit for child sex abuse that occurred as long ago as 35 years.

"I have never felt more ashamed of my church than I do today," said Rep. Chris Redfern of Catawba Island, a Catholic and chairman of the Ohio Democratic Party. House Democrats tried to return the look-back provision to Senate Bill 17, but majority Republicans defeated it in a party-line vote.

"The House took the side of people who rape children," said Sen. Marc Dann, a Democrat from the Youngstown area.

House Speaker Jon A. Husted said that by voting against the bill, it was Dann who was "allowing people to rape children without reporting it."

The House passed the bill early yesterday afternoon 77-18, sending it to the Senate for final concurrence — one of a handful of sex -related bills that passed.

A year ago, the Senate had unanimously approved the measure with the look-back, and a number of Senate Republicans wanted it to keep it in the bill. But many, including Senate President Bill M. Harris, were concerned that if they rejected the House revisions and sent it to a House-Senate conference committee to work out the differences, the House would kill the entire bill.

"I believe, and I don't think I'm the only one, that if this goes to the House for a conference committee, none will be appointed," said Sen. Jeff Jacobson, R-Vandalia. "All the good work we have done . . . would go for naught."

The Senate vote on the priest sex-abuse bill reportedly was part of a deal worked out with House and Senate leaders. In exchange, the House approved by 95-1 the Senate version of a bill regulating strip clubs, and agreed to consider a Senate proposal increasing penalties for those who refuse blood-alcohol tests during traffic stops.

The Senate had removed certain sections of the House version of the strip club bill, including provisions that would have required strippers to remain at least 6 feet from patrons and forced the clubs to close at 11 p.m.

Sen. Robert R. Spada, a North Royalton Republican and sponsor of the bill, said he felt strongly about the look-back provision, but he didn't think it would do any good to fight for it.

"To be honest with you, I'm just a little bit sick," he said.

But Dann urged his colleagues to send the bill to a conference committee rather than be bullied by the House.

"We speak, we fight, even if there is a risk we might lose," he said. "I'd rather stand up to a bully than let him intimidate us."

The Senate voted 18-13 to approve the House version of the bill, sending it to Gov. Bob Taft. Four Republicans, including Sen. David Goodman of New Albany, voted to reject House amendments.

Sen. Patricia Clancy, R-Cincinnati, also voted against the House-passed bill, calling the look-back provision the "last shred of hope and justice that these poor victims have."

Catholic Church officials have argued that while their alternative doesn't doesn't allow victims to collect monetary awards, it gives them justice by bringing an accused offender into court who has avoided prosecution because the statute of limitations has run out. If evidence is sufficient, the accused can be placed on the Internet registry of sex offenders.

But Clancy said getting such a judgment from a court against perpetrators would be "extremely difficult" and could take years.

"We need to show our support now. We have come so far," she said.

The outcome dismayed sexabuse victims who had been pushing for the provision.

Before yesterday's House session, members of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests formed a line outside the chamber's main entrance, holding pictures of themselves as child victims, yelling at a handful of Republican members who passed by on their way inside.

"Shame on you! . . . Please don't sell the kids out! "

But most GOP lawmakers chose to enter the chamber through side doors.

"Victims are just going to fall through the cracks," said Claudia Vercellotti, a Toledo abuse victim.

Without the look-back, which was similar to one enacted in California three years ago, victims can't hold churches accountable for covering up past abuses, supporters said. They also say the registry contains loopholes and ultimately will be found unconstitutional — an argument the Catholic Church made against the lookback provision.

Rep. Bill Seitz, a Cincinnati Republican, said if the state opens up old sex-abuse cases that have passed the statute of limitations, what's to stop lawmakers from doing it for others? "It is a dangerous ground down which we go," he said.

The bill also extends the statute of limitations for lawsuits involving new child sexabuse cases to 12 years past the victim's 18 th birthday. The current law is two years, and the Senate wanted it at 20.

Before they left last night for their spring break, state lawmakers also gave final approval to bills dealing with sex crimes involving victims under age 13, including those that increase punishment for sexual battery and gross sexual imposition.

A bill to increase the punishment for rape involving a child victim to a mandatory 25 years to life is still pending. The victims of sexual abuse were dealt a huge setback in the Ohio Statehouse on Tuesday when a controversial provision of a proposed child protection law was dropped.

The 35-year "look back" period would have let victims file suits as much as 35 years after abuse occurred for a period of one year, but the provision did not survive a subcommittee vote. Under the statute of limitations, victims of abuse have two years past their 18th birthday to sue their abusers. Instead, Senate Bill 17 allows victims to go to court to place their abusers on a registry of sexual offenders to let others know of an abuser's past.

That's a positive gesture, but it does not do enough to hold abusers and institutions that may have protected them accountable for sexual abuse committed years ago.

And that's tragic.

Tragic because victims are essentially victimized again, especially if they have waited to deal with an issue that has tormented them all their lives. Also, it's morally tragic because the Catholic Church strongly opposed the "look-back" provision.

Anyone who has been abused as a child, or knows someone who has, is aware of the trauma it causes. But clergy abuse is much worse. The abuser is a powerful leader with moral and institutional authority behind him. The person abused feels like they lack credibility and could never be believed.

That's why it can take many decades for some people who have been abused to come forward, and they often carry the sadness, shame and fear with them into adulthood, even as they report what happened to them to authorities.

It's an issue that has repeatedly been raised by SNAP, or the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests. The co-leader of the Cincinnati chapter, Christy Miller, was rightly upset at the decision.

"They gutted everything. Essentially, the church got everything it wanted. The House leadership made a deal with the devil," Miller said.

Rep. Lou Blessing, R-Cincinnati, said he had concerns that the measure would be unconstitutional. He implied its passage could open a Pandora's box for instigating lawsuits related to cases now barred by a statue of limitations.

Legal questions aside, the larger moral issues surrounding the proposal are disappointing, especially as it relates to the Catholic Church and its support of dropping "look-back."

After being tainted by dozens of sex-abuse scandals, shuffling abusive priests from parish to parish, paying millions to victims and seeing some of the faithful disenchanted, one would have hoped the church would have taken a less vocal, more conservative stance on the issue.

It's a pity that didn't happen.


Any original material on these pages is copyright © 2004. Reproduce freely with attribution.