Lawmakers say they planned to fail on Strauss sex abuse bill; victims weren’t told

WEWS-TV, ABC - 5 ([Cleveland OH]

October 11, 2021

By Jake Zuckerman

The following article was originally published in the Ohio Capital Journal and published on under a content-sharing agreement.

Despite hearing public, firsthand accounts of sexual abuse from eight of at least 177 victims of Ohio State sports physician Dr. Richard Strauss, state Republican leaders indicated they never planned to pass introduced legislation that would allow his victims to hold the university accountable in court.

Both former House Speaker Larry Householder, R-Glenford, and current House Majority Leader Bill Seitz, R-Green Twp., said in recent statements they used the legislation and high-profile hearings to apply pressure on OSU to generate a larger out-of-court settlement for victims — not to guarantee anyone their right to a trial.

In interviews, five victims of Strauss’ abuse and several of their attorneys say they were never told of the purported strategy.

“Why f**k with victims in that way? That’s the most irresponsible thing I’ve ever heard,” said Mike Schyck, a two-time all-American wrestler for Ohio State, in a recent interview.

Schyck testified before lawmakers in 2019, recounting how Strauss sexually abused him during physical examinations. He said he thought the bill was an honest effort to change the law, not some kind of legal strategy.

“Why would you consider putting us through that?” he said.

Ohio law sets a two-year window within which adult victims of sexual abuse must file any civil lawsuits (child victims get a longer window). Strauss’ conduct occurred between 1979 and 1996, according to an OSU-commissioned, independent investigation.

“We [found] that university personnel had knowledge of Strauss’ sexually abusive treatment of male student-patients as early as 1979, but that complaints and reports about Strauss’ conduct were not elevated beyond the Athletics Department or Student Health until 1996,” the report states.

Victims filed a class action lawsuit that the Associated Press reports would grow to include about 400 plaintiffs. After the filing, an Ohio Republican introduced House Bill 249 in 2019 to allow a special exemption to this statute of limitations for Strauss victims. Last month, long after the bill died, U.S. District Judge Michael Watson dismissed the lawsuit, citing the statute of limitations. However, he lambasted Strauss’ “unspeakable sexual abuse” and how OSU “failed to protect these victims” in his opinion.

He placed much of the blame for his ruling at state lawmakers’ feet.

“If there is a viable path forward for plaintiffs on their claim against Ohio State, it starts with the legislature, rather than the judiciary,” he said.

The House Civil Justice Committee held six hearings on HB 249, hearing out victims, their wives, and parents. However, legislative leaders now admit they never planned to pass the bill.

“The reality is that the bill was introduced to provide the victims with a public forum to tell their stories and hope to persuade the university to settle with victims and bring some degree of closure to a very bad situation,” said Householder, then House speaker, in a statement.

Shawn Dailey, a former OSU wrestler and Strauss victim who testified before lawakers, said he was never told of this plan.

“That was someone else’s intent, perhaps, but it was never our intent,” he said.

Rocky Ratliff, an attorney representing Strauss victims and a victim and former wrestler himself, said he didn’t know of the strategy. Discussing it in an interview, he called Ohio lawmakers “pathetic.”

During the hearings in 2019 and early 2020, athlete after athlete told lawmakers about how Strauss abused them, and the university failed to act on their complaints. Most all of them cried in front of strangers, lawmakers, TV cameras, and legislative staff.

They described to lawmakers abuses from Strauss like sodomy, forced masturbation, groping and fondling, usually during routine physicals required as a term of participating as a varsity athlete. Some described dealing with PTSD, broken relationships with parents and wives stemming from the abuse, trust issues causing fissures in personal relationships, alcoholism and more.

One former wrestler, Daniel Ritchie, described a series of escalating, unwanted advances from Strauss during annual physicals. When coaches ordered Ritchie to see Strauss for a shoulder injury his junior year, the appointment descended into Strauss stroking Ritchie’s genitals.

It was his first time telling his story publicly — until that point, he was only identified as a John Doe in the OSU lawsuit.

Ritchie explained to lawmakers how the abuse prompted him to quit wrestling. He couldn’t bring himself to tell his parents why. He lost his scholarship and his grades suffered, prompting him to take time from school.

In an interview, he expressed cycles of frustration at telling lawmakers his story on two occasions, retraumatizing himself for nothing.

“You have state government officials, and their sole job is to represent the people of their state,” he said. “When those people come before them and say, ‘We need your help,’ they didn’t help.”

Applying pressure

The bill sponsor, Rep. Brett Hudson Hillyer, R-Uhrichsville, said he, in tandem with the victims, tried in good faith to pass House Bill 249. The legislation is extraordinarily narrow — it allows the Strauss victims, not any other sexual abuse or assault victims, to bring civil lawsuits against OSU even if the statute of limitations has passed.

In an interview, Hillyer said neither he nor the legislature should be blamed for the bill’s failure and Watson’s ruling against the plaintiffs. He insisted he fought in earnest to pass the bill but the votes just weren’t there. The bill never came up for a vote, which is usually a decision of the committee chairman in consultation with House leadership.

“I don’t think there was ever a time that leadership was heavily involved other than encouraging more hearings and asking Ohio State to do the right thing,” Hillyer said.

The chairman at the time, now-former Rep. Steve Hambley, R-New Brunswick, declined to answer questions and referred comment to Householder. He terminated a phone call when asked why he didn’t put the bill up for a vote.

Seitz, a powerful House Republican and Householder’s lieutenant overseeing the judicial committees at the time, didn’t play any public role regarding the bill. However, he recently wrote a letter, which he provided to the Ohio Capital Journal, in response to requests from Strauss victims to resurrect HB 249 in the current legislative session.

While he described Strauss’ conduct as “deplorable,” he said he opposed HB 249, which was “intended to apply pressure to Ohio State to come to the table and make meaningful settlement offers.”

Statutes of limitations, he said, ensure claims are brought when memories are fresh, evidence has not yet been lost, and defendants have a fairer opportunity to defend themselves against allegations that may be “tainted” by faded memories or misremembered events. Plus, he said, if lawmakers grant this extension, where does it end?

“It would have led to a flood of similar demands that the civil statute of limitations for damages be lifted as to lawsuits against churches, the Boy Scouts, the Girl Scouts, and any number of charitable institutions whose past practices facilitated abuse similar to the abuse that you suffered,” he wrote.

Householder rejected the notion that lawmakers failed on the bill; the votes just weren’t there, he said.

“The intent was to pass the bill if it had support. I guess the obvious questions are, why didn’t [the victims] settle once it was extremely obvious the bill was out of oxygen?” he said.

A heinous precedent

With a statute of limitations as a shield and a legislature signaling its unwillingness to get rid of it, OSU faced a lower liability risk than universities that recently found themselves in similar positions.

After a former OSU wrestler blew the whistle on Strauss’ conduct in 2018, a university-commissioned investigation by the Perkins Coie law firm established that Strauss abused at least 177 victims over 20 years. Even after the university forced Strauss out in 1997, it allowed him to voluntarily retire and keep his “emeritus” honorific.

Ohio State settled lawsuits with 185 Strauss victims, paying out a total of $46.7 million, about $252,000 per victim. They settled another roughly 45 claims through its “Strauss Individual Settlement Program,” according to a university spokesman. The settlement program contains a term that it’s not “an admission or evidence of any wrongdoing or liability on the part of Ohio State or of the truth of any of the allegations in the lawsuits.”