SNAP Members Fight to Overturn New Child Sex-Abuse Law

By Jacob Ruhe
Toledo Free Press [Ohio]
December 20, 2006

Three Ohio leaders of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests planned to return to the Franklin County Court of Common Pleas to continue to try to invalidate Ohio's new child sex-abuse law on Dec. 19. Claudia Vercellotti, a co-leader of SNAP in Toledo, and Christy Miller and Dan Frondorf, SNAP's Cincinnati co-leaders, are the plaintiffs in the case Vercellotti v. Husted et al.

The SNAP members seek to overturn the new law on grounds that Republican members of an Ohio House committee on Senate Bill 17 met in violation of Ohio's open-meeting laws prior to the bill's passage. Republican House Speaker Jon Husted, who wasn't on the committee, was present at this meeting according to the SNAP leaders.

They contend the Republicans who met included a majority of the committee. Though Ohio law allows caucuses to meet privately, it forbids private committee meetings, which it defines as "any prearranged discussion of the public business of a committee by a majority of its members."

Vercellotti said those at the private meeting discussed changes later made to Senate Bill 17 she and other SNAP members find objectionable.

Prior to the meeting, the bill language allowed victims of sexual abuse 20 years after they turned 18 to report the crime, Vercellotti said. After the meeting, the bill's language was changed to allow them 12 years.

Vercellotti also said prior to the meeting the bill provided for a one-year window in which those sexually abused up to 35 years ago could file civil suit against their abusers. After the meeting, this window was removed from the bill and provisions for a civil registry were added. The civil registry allows victims of abuse who cannot take civil action against their abusers because the statute of limitations has expired to have their names put on a public list.

"We want to send the bill back to the legislature to do it right," Vercellotti said.

Earlier this year, Franklin County Court of Common Pleas Magistrate Christine Lippe ruled that a majority of the House committee did attend a private, prearranged meeting. However, according to Christy Miller, she also ruled that the new child sex-abuse law should stand because the plaintiffs couldn't prove what was discussed by the majority of committee members at this meeting.

The plaintiffs claim a TV interview given by Rep. Bill Seitz in which he said the bill was under discussion proves what happened at the meeting.

Miller said the interview was broadcast to hundreds of thousands of people.

Lippe ruled the video inadmissible, citing the immunity the Ohio Constitution grants legislators against being questioned for any speech in either house.

Catherine Hoolahan, Vercellotti's lawyer, felt the video should have been introduced in the case. Since talking to the press isn't a formal part of Seitz's job, it shouldn't be covered under legislative immunity, she said.

Judge Patrick E. Sheeran of the Franklin County Court of Common Pleas will begin reviewing Lippe's decision at the hearing on Dec. 19.

Vercellotti said House Capital Appropriations Bill 699, which passed on Dec. 12 and is set to go to the Senate next week, would expand the definition of caucus to allow more private legislative committees.

The bill changes the definition of caucus to include "members of a committee of the House of Representatives who are members of the same political party."

Vercellotti said the bill is an effort to make private meetings like the one held by the House committee on Senate Bill 17 legal.

"This kind of bolsters our position that they knew [the private meeting on Senate Bill 17] was wrong," she said.

House Speaker Husted's office did not return a call seeking comment.


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