Diocese Uses Tough Tactics in Sex Suits Facing Steep Liability, Church Plays 'Hardball' with Accusers, Critics Say
By James F. McCarty and David Briggs
Plain Dealer [Cleveland, Ohio]
March 10, 2002
The cost of abuse Just months after his testimony helped to lock up the Catholic grade-school principal who had raped him and several classmates years earlier, 19-year-old Michael found himself on a harsher witness stand.
This time around, his adversary was a lawyer for the Catholic Diocese of Cleveland, which was named in a lawsuit seeking redress for the abuse.
In 1998, less than a year after Paul Deitrick was sentenced to eight years in prison for raping Michael and the others, the church's lawyer began interrogating the youth as if he were the instigator of the sexual attacks, according to an angry letter the boy's mother later sent to Bishop Anthony Pilla.
In two grueling deposition sessions on consecutive days, the mother wrote, the lawyer explored "in minute detail" the sexual assaults against the boy, then 14, by the former principal of Our Lady of Good Counsel grade school in Cleveland. Then the lawyer promised the rattled young man that the inquisition was far from over. The interrogation, Michael's mother surmised in the letter to Pilla, was calculated to "get him to drop the suit at any cost."
If that was the goal, it succeeded.
"My son came out of the deposition in tears," Michael's mother said in an interview last month.
"He was physically and emotionally distraught. He couldn't go through with it."
A lifelong Catholic, Michael's mother remains bitter at the transformation in the church's attitude - from that of compassionate minister in the early stages of her son's ordeal to brass-knuckled street fighter when the issue turned to possible financial responsibility.
She is far from alone.
A growing number of victims of alleged sexual abuse, their families and lawyers say they feel doubly burned by the Catholic Church: First, by the abuse itself and, second, by the Cleveland Diocese's aggressive efforts to avoid financial liability.
"It's terrible what they do to these kids," said Cleveland lawyer Claudia Eklund, who represented Michael. No other defendant she has faced in sexual-abuse lawsuits has ever fought back with the fury of the Diocese of Cleveland, she said.
"They drag them through the mud and treat them so brutally, just to get them to drop the cases."
Records and interviews show that blistering depositions are but one tactic in a diocesan legal arsenal that includes denying sexual abuse even when it has been confirmed, suggesting that victims were to blame and using Ohio's statute of limitations to keep alleged victims from getting their day in court.
The diocese's lead lawyer, Edward Maher, defends the church's legal strategy.
"My job as a lawyer is to do the best job I can, to learn all the facts, to know the law and apply it to the case," Maher said last week. "I try to do that with sensitivity, care and concern."
The stakes are high Recent headlines, detailing priest-abuse scandals from Arizona to Boston and overseas, have only heightened the church's financial concerns.
Reports of lawsuits by the score, criminal prosecutions of priests on behalf of hundreds of child victims and huge damage awards - including a $110 million clergy-abuse settlement recently announced in Ireland - clearly show that the scourge that has bedeviled the Catholic Church the past 20 years is far from spent.
And that the stakes are high.
"There is a well-founded fear that the financial burden of this can quickly overwhelm financial resources," said Mark Chopko, general counsel for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.
The tough legal tactics of the Cleveland Diocese - with an occasional assist from what some describe as a historically pro-church judiciary in Cuyahoga County - often appear to work quite well.
In Northeast Ohio, only a handful of the victims who have come forward have won big settlements, according to interviews with lawyers, judges and diocesan officials. The total of damage settlements here is unknown, protected by confidentiality agreements that the diocese requires in all cases.
Many of those who have sued say they agreed to walk away with a meager settlement or nothing at all.
"Not enough money to even buy a good used car," was how another Deitrick victim described the settlement of his 1998 lawsuit against the diocese.
Michael and his mother decided to drop their suit. But not before she fired off her letter to Pilla, denouncing the tactics of "your esteemed lawyer."
Score another win for attorney Maher, Knights of Columbus Catholic Man of the Year for 1995 and Michael's principal interrogator during the 1998 deposition.
Maher, a private lawyer hired by the diocese, said he was only doing his job - defending the interests of his client.
"I don't believe, from my point of view, that I have ever tried to be antagonistic, oppressive or anything else," Maher said. "That's just not my style."
Court records show that Maher has been the legal point man in the Cleveland Diocese's efforts to minimize the potentially huge financial liability associated with allegations of sexual abuse by Catholic priests, teachers and other church employees.
However, the Cleveland Diocese has not escaped unscathed.
In 1987, the diocese was shaken by a series of Plain Dealer reports of child sex abuse by several priests and by allegations that diocesan officials had quietly foisted the offenders off onto unsuspecting parishioners. Only afterward did the diocese remove the priests from access to children and revise its policy for handling pedophile priests.
Since then, according to court records in eight counties, the Cleveland Diocese has been named in at least 20 child sex-abuse lawsuits - nine of them in the last five years - seeking more than $40 million in damages. (Fourteen of the cases didn't mention a specific dollar amount.) The alleged abusers in those cases included nine priests, one religious brother, a deacon and four lay faculty at Catholic schools.
Together, they were alleged to have victimized from a few dozen to well over 100 children from the early 1960s through the early '90s, according to court records, interviews with lawyers, police and victims and statements from the alleged perpetrators themselves.
At least one priest, one brother and three lay faculty accused of sex abuse have been convicted of felonies and sent to prison.
The overwhelming majority of Catholic priests would never lay an inappropriate hand on a child in their pastoral care.
In fact, some church researchers estimate that fewer than 5 percent of priests are likely to be pedophiles or sexual predators, roughly the same percentage as males in other professional jobs.
But given the access priests have to schoolchildren and other potential victims, the opportunities presented to clerics with evil intent are far greater.
When priest-predators do strike, experts say, victims often bury the memory, sometimes for decades.
Research by church experts suggests there may have been as many as several hundred such victims in Greater Cleveland, many of them continuing to struggle into their 20s, 30s and beyond with searing childhood traumas.
How many have actually approached the diocese - and how their cases have been handled - is a secret.
Officials say that since the scandal of 1987, the diocese has required that all child sex-abuse allegations against clergy or faculty be reported to the county Department of Human Services.
But such reports are confidential, Cuyahoga County officials say, adding that they are not permitted to disclose even the number filed. And like church authorities elsewhere, diocesan officials in Cleveland decline to discuss the number of complaints they have received.
Of the 20 diocesan sex-abuse cases that have reached the courts in the last 15 years, none has yet been aired before a judge or jury.
Most, according to court records and interviews, have been doomed by a combination of factors: Ohio's statute of limitations, which according to some is unrealistically restrictive when applied to child sex-abuse cases. (Attempts to liberalize it in the mid-1990s were smashed by what former state lawmaker June Lucas described as intense opposition on behalf of the Catholic Church.) What critics inside and outside the diocese describe as the church's "hardball" tactics in turning lawsuits away.
Minnesota lawyer Jeffrey Anderson, who has been involved in more than 400 clergy sex-abuse cases in dioceses coast to coast - including Cleveland - says the tactics employed here are in a class by themselves: "Hardball hardball" is how Anderson describes them.
"The diocese fights with whatever it takes," adds Cleveland lawyer John Ricotta, a University of Notre Dame graduate and practicing Catholic who has filed three lawsuits against the diocese on behalf of alleged victims of sexual assault.
"They have no compassion for the victims," Ricotta said. "It's simply business for them.
They're the most cold and calculating people I've ever seen."
Although Maher said he disagrees with that characterization, he acknowledges that the view is not uncommon.
"One can understand the perception because litigation is a very difficult situation," Maher said.
Auxiliary Bishop A. James Quinn said the goals of guarding the church's finances and giving pastoral assistance to victims are not incompatible. He said he trusts Maher to perform his job ethically.
"This is the first-ever complaint I've heard about this man," Quinn said. "I don't think he is that kind of aggressive person."
Still, Maher added, "You have to ask tough questions. I can understand people aren't happy because they're hurting."
But in the process of asking its tough questions, critics say, the church may be forsaking its pastoral mission and leaving alleged victims feeling ravaged all over again.
One former high-ranking diocesan official says he has been chastised by diocesan lawyers for apologizing - even to proven abuse victims - on the theory that any official acknowledgment could leave the church vulnerable to a large financial settlement.
Bishop Pilla expresses compassion for both the victims and their abusers, the former diocesan official said. But a real battle has been under way between the church's lawyers and the pastoral staff, he said, with the legal side usually winning.
"The attorneys felt their job was to protect the resources of the diocese, and I think they thought the way corporate attorneys do," the former official said. "I did not see any malicious, cynical, cavalier behavior while I was there. I felt I did see some misplaced concern."
In addition to conducting combative depositions, court records show, other diocesan defense tactics include: Denying knowledge of the sexual abuse alleged - even in cases where it has been legally established or admitted by the perpetrator.
Denying that alleged victims suffered ongoing psychological damage - even in cases where the diocese had paid for treatment.
Refusing to disclose evidence from diocesan files that an accused pedophile had been treated for the disorder.
Using confidentiality agreements in settlements with some victims to keep them from testifying on behalf of another alleged victim of the same perpetrator.
Asserting "boilerplate" legal defenses that claim, among other things, that priests are merely "independent contractors" of the diocese - not agents or employees - and that the victim shared responsibility with the abuser for any sexual abuse that occurred.
Using Ohio's statute of limitations to keep victims of documented sexual abuse - or new allegations involving proven pedophiles - from reaching a courtroom.
Maher said he won't apologize for using any legitimate defense - which certainly includes state law setting time limits for suits - to represent the diocese, whenever the need arises.
"It's a defense," Maher said of Ohio's statute of limitations. "I have an obligation to take whatever steps are necessary to protect the legitimate and legal interests of my client."
But those seeking compassion and contrition from their church say it's hard to reconcile such tactics with the "victims first" approach to such cases recommended to the church in 1994 by a committee of U.S. Catholic bishops.
The chairman of that committee, Bishop John Kinney, then of Bismarck, N.D., used a passage quoting Jesus in Matthew's Gospel to condemn stonewalling and legal hair-splitting by the church in such cases: "Is there anyone among you who, if your child asks for bread, will give a stone?" But that's exactly what Beverly Schonher says happened to her.
'Raped all over again' Schonher has accused a parish priest of sexually abusing and raping her over three years in the early 1980s, when she was between the ages of 16 and 18. All she wanted, Schonher said in an interview, was an apology from the church and an assurance that the priest would be barred from contact with other youths.
Schonher says she sued only after the diocese refused.
And what she got was the back of the church's legal hand, including a relentless, four-day grilling three years ago by Maher, the diocesan lawyer.
"It felt as if he raped me all over again," said Schonher, now 38, who was a student at Cleveland Central Catholic High School and a parishioner at Our Lady of Good Counsel at the time of the alleged assaults. "He wanted every detail. He made me feel as if I was the bad one."
This tack was pursued even though the priest, the Rev. Daniel Mangan, had acknowledged being sexually active - with adults and minors alike. Although he denied Schonher's assertion, Mangan admitted under oath that he had sex with at least two parishioners during the period in question.
Court documents show that Mangan entered into confidential settlement agreements with two of his other alleged sex partners - and that the church succeeded in getting court orders preventing Schonher's lawyers from questioning them.
Court records also show that when Schonher's lawyer asked Mangan about the other relationships, lawyer Maher objected, based on the confidentiality agreements signed in the other settlements.
The diocesan lawyer displayed no such restraint, however, in grilling Schonher.
A transcript of her deposition shows Maher repeatedly pressing her for prurient - and seemingly irrelevant - information, asking her, for instance, which hand the priest had allegedly used to assault her, how many fingers he had used and whether she had enjoyed the sex.
"In over a decade of doing this work, I never, ever ran into an opponent who stooped to this tactic," said Karen Crist, one of Schonher's lawyers.
"A few times, I thought I was going to vomit. Bev would start to shake and have to stop. We probably took 20 breaks," said Crist, who held her client's hand through much of the questioning.
After two days, Crist and colleague Howard Schulman protested that Maher's line of questioning was cruel and abusive.
Schonher's psychologist submitted a report to the court that said Maher's interrogation was causing serious psychological damage to his patient. The psychologist noted that Schonher had attempted suicide before, and her legal team was concerned she might try again.
But Maher insisted on pressing on.
Schulman and Crist sought emergency relief from Judge Ron Suster in Cuyahoga County Common Pleas Court. But the judge refused to order an end to the deposition: Two more days, Suster ruled.
"It was insane," said Rick Sommers, another Schonher lawyer. "It shocks me that those kind of tactics are sanctioned by the church."
Not to mention the court.
Sommers cited Suster's rulings on the confidential witnesses and the four-day deposition as reasons, among other things, for dropping Schonher's case last year and refiling it in Montgomery County, where Mangan's religious order - the Society of the Precious Blood - has its headquarters.
Sommers, who like Suster is a Catholic, said he hopes the case will get what he described as more balanced judicial treatment in Dayton.
Mangan, now a missionary in Chile, could not be reached for comment.
Maher declined to discuss specifics in Schonher's case, because her lawsuit is pending.
But as a general rule, he said, "one must look at what the allegations are, how often things happened," he said. As for lengthy depositions, he said, "some things don't move as quickly."
Suster said that under the circumstances in Schonher's case, he thought a four-day deposition was not excessive. The judge added that he has considerable respect for Maher.
"This was a serious matter with four defendants and a still-outstanding issue of the rape," Suster said. "The defense had the right to ask about it."
But Schonher's lawyers aren't the only ones to assert that Cuyahoga County's largely Catholic judiciary has historically bent over backward to protect the church's reputation and pocketbook.
For decades, some in the legal community say, the exalted status of the diocese served as a shield against embarrassing sexual abuse scandals by its priests and lay teachers and the painful monetary damages those cases sometimes produce.
"The unwritten rule used to be that any case against the church was never likely to see the light of day," said Common Pleas Judge Daniel Gaul, himself a practicing Catholic.
"When confronted with allegations of clergy wrongdoing, there was a tendency to sweep it under the carpet and hope it went away."
A stern order Gaul did much to change that in one of Cleveland's most notorious cases - one that resulted in what Gaul remembers as a large, six-figure settlement for one child victim, and a five-to-25-year prison sentence for a former priest, the Rev. Martin Louis.
Among the known cases, Louis is probably as close as the Cleveland Diocese has come to producing a John Geoghan, the defrocked Boston priest whose record of allegedly molesting nearly 200 children from the mid-1970s to the mid-'90s has been generating national headlines in recent months.
According to records, Louis revealed during church-ordered group therapy sessions that he had molested as many as 90 children during his 24-year career as a priest in the Diocese of Cleveland.
Diocesan officials later modified the official estimate of Louis' victims to 12 to 16 children, according to a police report. But the case produced damning evidence that the diocese knew of his abusive proclivities before the early 1980s, when Louis started molesting the 8-year-old girl who would sue him a decade later.
That case reached a turning point after Louis, in a deposition, revealed having undergone intensive psychological treatment from 1980 to 1990 - treatment, it was later revealed, for pedophilia.
Yet until that time, the diocese had repeatedly denied any prior knowledge of Louis' sexual behavior and had refused to give the girl's lawyer - John Ricotta - a psychological report prepared for diocesan officials by Louis' treating psychiatrist.
"Evasion, obstruction, deceit, fraud and perjury comprise the pillars upon which the defendants have thus far constructed their defense," Ricotta wrote in a motion before Gaul.
The judge, after seeing the psychiatrist's report - which he said revealed that Louis was being treated for child abuse - ordered the diocese to turn it over to Ricotta. That caused the church's lawyers to vigorously protest.
"They were absolutely livid, indignant and morally outraged" by the decision, Gaul said. "They were filled with contempt that they would have to pay anything, let alone the substantial amount necessary to settle this case."
Gaul's decision led to a swift settlement. But even in the face of overwhelming evidence of Louis' proclivities, the diocese refused to admit that abuse occurred in this case.
Before agreeing to settle, diocesan lawyers drafted a confidentiality agreement describing the settlement as "the compromise of a doubtful and disputed claim" that "should not be construed to be an admission of liability" on the church's part.
Two months later, Louis was indicted on 14 counts of rape for sexually assaulting and molesting the 8-year-old Euclid girl, Sandra, in her bedroom when he was supposed to be hearing her bedtime prayers. He is still in prison.
The ticking clock Despite the strength of the facts in her case, Sandra (not her real name) came within a month of stumbling on the single biggest hurdle facing child sex-abuse victims in Ohio - a hurdle that the church apparently has not only fought to preserve but also has used cleverly and aggressively to limit its liability.
In Ohio, a victim of child sexual abuse has just one year from the time he or she reaches 18 to sue the perpetrator for an intentional sexual attack.
The victim has two years after reaching 18 to sue an institution such as a church for negligence in hiring or poor supervision of an abusive employee. But lawyers say a plaintiff's case becomes much weaker after that first year passes - because the window for building a claim around the actual sexual abuse has closed.
In cases where it can be shown that all memories of the abuse have been "repressed," the one-year clock starts ticking the moment when the "recovered" memory is first communicated to someone else.
Each state's statutes of limitations are different - and Ohio's are among the most stringent, according to plaintiff's lawyers.
Attorney Howard Schulman says the one-year deadline for suing over abuse is unrealistic, and he and others have argued for years in favor of extending the filing deadline.
"Any therapist will tell you that victims of sexual abuse are in no condition to bring a civil complaint within one year of the abuse," Schulman said.
In Illinois, child sex-abuse victims have two years to file a lawsuit after any memory is recovered but are barred from filing after their 30th birthday.
In Minnesota and Vermont, where such laws are among the most liberal, victims have six years after turning 18 - or after recovering any lost memories - to file.
In the mid-1990s, two separate attempts to liberalize Ohio's law never made it out of committee in Columbus.
"The Catholic Church killed my bill," said June Lucas, a former state legislator from Niles, who proposed in 1994 that all time limits for filing child sex-abuse lawsuits be removed.
"I had the most high-powered, awesome attorneys in my office that I ever encountered in my 14 years in the Statehouse," Lucas said, and they were arguing on behalf of the church.
"We really got into it over priests," Lucas recalled. "I said, 'If they're criminals, they should be treated like anyone else.' They said, 'These cases should be handled internally by the church.' I lost."
An attempt to extend the filing limit to six years died the following year.
Meanwhile, the Cleveland Diocese continues to take advantage of the tight legal restrictions on suing the church.
Some lawyers even accuse the diocese of lulling victims with compassionate talk and promises of aid until the critical first year has passed, only to hammer them with a stark choice later: Take a low settlement and move on or get thrown out of court on the statute of limitations.
"The diocese will hold your hand for eight months and play the good guy until the statute of limitations runs out," Ricotta said. "Then you won't hear from them again."
Maher denied the assertion, adding that the diocese helps victims regardless of whether they hire a lawyer or file a lawsuit.
Just last year, Ricotta said, he declined to take an otherwise strong case - involving convicted molester Martin Louis - because diocesan lawyers had taken that very tack.
The case was similar to Sandra's, and the alleged abuse, of a 9-year-old boy, occurred at about the same time - in the early 1980s.
The boy, now in his 20s and a psychological mess, according to his family, apparently repressed all memory of the abuse, telling no one until June 1999.
About that time, he entered a treatment facility for depression, nightmares and abuse of alcohol and crack cocaine. It was the counseling that triggered memories of the childhood abuse.
Louis had been a frequent dinner guest at the boy's home and sometimes asked to spend the night when snowfall made the roads slippery. After everyone else had fallen asleep, the alleged victim later told his father, Louis would sneak into his room, carry him downstairs and molest him.
'We didn't want to sue' Hoping for help to recoup some of the mounting costs for treating his son, the father went to the Cleveland Diocese, where he said he met with then-legal director Santiago Feliciano.
"Father Louis is not a priest, he's an animal," the father recalls Feliciano telling him.
Feliciano denies making the statement.
The diocesan official offered to help, the father said. Feliciano went to the alleged victim's home, where they "did a lot of crying and praying," the father said.
The father said that when the diocese declined to reimburse him for $20,000 in medical bills, he and his son sought legal counsel from Akron lawyer Ron Lee, who promised to pursue a financial settlement without filing a lawsuit.
"We didn't want to sue the church," the father said. "We're Catholic people. We trusted them."
For months, Lee said, he worked with Feliciano and Maher, the diocesan lawyer. They exchanged letters and sometimes discussed settlement options over coffee.
Lee said he got the impression that the diocese was interested in resolving the matter outside of court.
Meanwhile, the clock was ticking. And a few months after that crucial first year had passed since the son's memory was restored, Lee said, Maher's demeanor hardened.
He insisted the diocese had no prior knowledge of Louis' predilection for children, Lee said, and denied the church bore any responsibility for the priest's crimes.
"It's an abomination," said Lee. "They have a moral obligation to help this kid. Instead, they're treating it like a business. It's immoral."
Diocesan officials were reluctant to discuss the case. Maher said it was a pending matter.
Quinn put any tactical responsibility on Feliciano, who left his diocese job in 2000.
In a separate interview, Feliciano took offense at the notion that he would lull possible victims into complacency simply to knock them out with the statute of limitations.
"That was not my practice," Feliciano said.
By the time the first year passed in the boy's case, the diocese had already transferred most of the legal duties in sex-abuse cases to Maher, Feliciano said, a change in direction that he said he was not comfortable with.
"Your lawyer carries the water in the best interest of his client, and that is what Ed is doing," Feliciano said. "His client is the institution, not the souls of the diocese."
Despite what they acknowledge is a much weakened case, the victim and his father sued anyway last May, naming both the diocese and Louis.
"He was a priest and this happened in my house," the father said in a recent interview, his eyes brimming with tears and his voice breaking. "The SOB ate at my table and then he did that to my 9-year-old son? I never had a clue."
The father said the experience has rocked his faith.
"This was the church I was dealing with. I didn't know about any statute of limitations," he said. "I knew they were dragging their feet, leaving me hanging, but I didn't know why until later."
If it follows the pattern set by previous cases, the family's lawsuit against the diocese is likely to turn on when the victim first revealed the abuse to his therapist, not by whether the abuse occurred or how much damage it might have caused.
In 1966, according to court records, the Rev. Edward Rupp of St. Ann parish in Cleveland Heights allegedly started sexually abusing a 13-year-old boy while on a camping trip at Murphy's Beach in Madison. So began an illicit sexual relationship that allegedly continued until 1973, when Rupp's partner had turned 20.
After struggling with the psychological impact for two decades, the boy - now a deeply troubled man - sued Rupp and the diocese in 1994.
But the alleged victim apparently had told a priest about the years of abuse way back in 1973.
The priest, in turn, told then-Bishop William Cosgrove, according to court records. But the bishop and his successors apparently did little to protect parishioners from Rupp - in fact, they continued to give him parish assignments for more than 20 years - until the man filed his suit.
Only then did the diocese reassign Rupp to nonparish duty. It is unknown whether Rupp engaged in any illicit sexual relationships while serving at St. John Bosco in Parma Heights, St. Agnes in Elyria, St. Ignatius of Antioch on Cleveland's West Side, St. Vincent in Akron or St.
Vincent DePaul in Cleveland. Diocesan officials say, however, that they sought out possible victims.
Rupp could not be reached for comment.
But the diocesan lawyers used the fact that the boy had confided in a priest 21 years earlier to successfully argue that the statute of limitations had expired.
When the man and his psychologist argued that the psychic damage was severe enough to produce an "unsound mind" - which provides a legal exception to the time limit - the church argued all the way to the Ohio Supreme Court that the victim wasn't sufficiently wounded to qualify.
The diocese prevailed in 1998.
A new legal tack The statute of limitations hurdle is so high, in fact, that some plaintiffs' lawyers in child sex-abuse cases are going to extraordinary lengths to get around it.
By the time Joe Kotula sued the diocese last year, more than three years had passed since the day in 1997 when he first told his mother about being sexually assaulted over a seven-year period during the 1980s, while in elementary school, by the former principal at St. Angela Merici School in Fairview Park.
But Kotula's lawyers figure they have two good shots at getting around that time problem.
First, the lawyers contend that Kotula is of an "unsound mind," noting that the Social Security Administration already has certified their 26-year-old client as mentally disabled and suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder.
But in case that argument falls to an anticipated diocesan challenge, the lawyers have launched a fall-back attack.
Saying the Cleveland Diocese has engaged in a pattern of moving known pedophiles from place to place and covering up records of abuse, Kotula's legal team has charged the church with violating civil racketeering laws. It's the first known instance in the nation in which a church has been accused of engaging in a systematic pattern of corrupt activity.
In civil RICO (Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act) cases, there is no statute of limitations.
"I don't see the church as being any different than any other bureaucracy trying to cover up wrongdoing," said Kotula's lawyer, Jay Milano.
"Its sole function is to protect its assets. Self-interest is the ultimate god."
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