Dozens Speak in Support of Ohio’s Priest-Abuse Bill

By Julie Carr Smyth
Plain Dealer
December 9, 2005

Columbus — Robert Riestenberg said his principal at a Catholic high school in Cincinnati sexually molested him the day after his father died of cancer.

Mary Kessler said she was mourning the death of her young brother in a car accident when she was raped by the priest who had taken her grieving family under his wing.

Joelle Casteix was 15 when, bruised and bloody, she went to the office of her Catholic high school to report being abused by her choir director.

“They told me, ‘Isn’t it nice to be in love?’ ” said Casteix, 35, on a cross-country trip from California to support an Ohio bill aimed at cracking down on sexual abuse by priests and other religious leaders.

Riestenberg, Kessler, Casteix and dozens of others who say they are abuse victims testified Thursday in the second marathon hearing in a month on the proposal, sponsored by Sen. Bob Spada, Republican of North Royalton. It would mandate that church officials report known abuse, and it would open a one-year window for abuse victims to file civil lawsuits against the church.

For members of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, or SNAP, the chance to sue for damages — as has occurred in California since a similar law was passed — is the only way to achieve justice.

It is the one piece of the bill the Ohio Catholic Conference is fighting — and which lawmakers are evaluating for its ability to pass a constitutional challenge. The provision would lift a statute of limitations that already has expired in many cases.

The church will send Bishop Frederick Campbell of Columbus to testify against the look-back provision next week.

Tim Luckhaupt, a spokesman for the conference, said Campbell will lay out the many steps the church has taken to prevent abuse — including the removal of 25 priests from ministry in Cleveland alone; mandatory criminal background checks on new employees seeking to work with children; child-abuse awareness training for diocesan workers; and creation of independent councils to investigate abuse.

“We see what the victims are saying, but at the same time we don’t think the way we can protect today’s children and the children of the future is through the look-back,” Luckhaupt said.

Casteix, a key figure in a California abuse lawsuit that resulted in $100 million in damages against the church, said being able to sue yielded her written proof that her abuse was known and hidden — and she continues to take that proof to her abuser’s employers when he relocates, most recently to Michigan.

Peter Isely, SNAP’s Midwest regional director, said the nation is watching whether Ohio will follow Wisconsin and Pennsylvania in opening the lawsuit window.

“These are very Catholic states, and if the legislation passes here, it’s going to send a significant signal that it’s the beginning of the end of child abuse in the Catholic Church. It’s hard to underestimate the historical realignment that’s taking place between the church and the democracy.”

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