Alleged Molesters Fall through Cracks
Legislation Aims to Fix Situation
By Jim Provance
October 7, 2006
Last of two parts
Columbus — Most have never been charged with a crime, let alone convicted of one.
Their names are not on Ohio's so-called "Megan's Law" list of sex offenders checked by the state, school districts, nonprofit organizations, and others when it comes to deciding whom to license, hire, or take on as coaches or volunteers.
They may have been named in civil lawsuits, in newspapers, and, in some cases, by their own bishops, but current and former priests who have admitted to molesting children or whose dioceses have decided that they were most likely guilty of child sex abuse have fallen through the cracks of Ohio's efforts to track sex offenders.
Nothing in state law authorizes the Department of Education to routinely run background checks on teachers they've already licensed, something that would probably have flagged two of 10 people the department is now investigating after they were recently brought to its attention by The Blade.
And while the Diocese of Toledo and the Archdiocese of Cincinnati have publicly listed on their own online registries the names of seven disciplined former teachers and administrators, nothing in Ohio law required the diocese or its schools to tell the Department of Education what it knew or believed to have occurred.
"It cheapens the whole licensure process when a child molester can hold a license," said Claudia Vercellotti, Toledo coordinator for the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests. "It gives the appearance of a more well-rounded candidate. It's hard for the average person to reconcile that someone who is licensed by the state as a teacher or counselor could also be a sex offender."
House Bill 79, pending a joint House-Senate conference committee, would require public and private schools that suspect abuse by a teacher, school counselor, or administrator licensed by the department to report their suspicions.
"The problem is these cases haven't been brought to [the state's] attention," said Rep. Tom Raga (R., Mason), the bill's sponsor and Ken Blackwell's running mate in the Nov. 7 gubernatorial election.
Senate Bill 17 became law in August, making Ohio the first state with a civil registry. The concept was presented by Catholic bishops as an alternative to suspending the statute of limitations to allow the filing of civil lawsuits for abuse that occurred up to 35 years ago.
Adrian Allison, director of the department's Office of Professional Conduct and Education Licensure, said he would welcome another source of information. "The bottom line for me is our goal to educate students, and in order for students to get a good education, they need a safe and secure environment," he said. "If there are individuals who are in any way a threat or impediment to that environment, we need to know about it."
The department had lobbied for the bill and found a sponsor in Mr. Raga to address the "pass the trash" phenomenon.
"Back in Warren and Montgomery counties, we had a couple of situations where teachers made an agreement to leave a school district in exchange for the school agreeing not to talk about the issue that led to the resignation," said Mr. Raga.
On Tuesday, the State Board of Education is slated to permanently revoke the teaching certificate held by suspended priest Stephen G. Rogers, a former religion teacher at Toledo's Central Catholic High School who was convicted of child pornography possession. He is voluntarily surrendering his certificate to teach in private and religious schools.
Two other priests suspended by the Diocese of Toledo, Robert J. Yeager and Joseph M. Schmelzer, have also agreed to not to fight the state's revocation of their educator certificates, according to their attorney.
The state continues to gather information on certificates held by six other current and former priests who have been convicted of crimes, permanently removed or suspended from the priesthood, or have seen their dioceses reach financial settlements with their alleged victims. A 10th case involves a nonpriest teacher and coach.
Attorney General Jim Petro, whose office oversees the statewide sex-offender registry and has written the rules for the new civil registry, said background checks come with a price. The proposed checks that would be mandated under House Bill 79 would be born by the license applicant, but many school districts and organizations have picked up the tab in the past.
The fee for a state-only background check is $15. A national check via the FBI costs $24.
Mr. Petro suggested that it may make sense to put the onus of reporting to a licensing board on the licensee, making it a crime to lie about past records on license renewal forms.
"If they attest under oath that they don't have a record, and they do, then you're got a perjury charge," he said. "A person who failed to disclose a record is now in a position of being charged with a felony."
Contact Jim Provance at: firstname.lastname@example.org or 614-221-0496.
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