Justices to Consider If Time Limits Apply to Church Abuse Claims

By Carrie Spencer
Associated Press, carried in Beacon Journal [Columbus OH]
June 29, 2005

COLUMBUS, Ohio - The Ohio Supreme Court agreed Wednesday to consider whether the deadline has passed to file sexual abuse lawsuits against the Archdiocese of Cincinnati.

Several lawsuits by people who said they were abused as children have accused the Roman Catholic archdiocese and Archbishop Daniel Pilarczyk of negligently hiring the priests, hiding the abuse and inflicting emotional distress.

Most were thrown out based on state laws setting deadlines for filing complaints over sexual abuse of a minor. The limit is one year after turning age 18 for reporting the abuse itself, two years for claiming someone failed to protect against the abuse and five years for alleging a pattern of corrupt activity.

But the 3rd Ohio District Court of Appeals in March ruled that a case should go forward against Thomas Hopp of Cincinnati. The Shelby County court agreed that the time limit should begin running from 2002, when Hopp was removed from the ministry and the victim learned the archdiocese knew of other victims.

The appeals court agreed the victim should get the chance to prove he had no reason to know the archdiocese and Pilarczyk were negligent in allowing the abuse to continue.

If the man wins in the high court, his case would return to the pretrial investigation and document exchange before actually going to trial, said his attorney, Konrad Kircher.

"We still have to prove our case that my client had no reason not to know he had a claim," he said. He added the case could help two other appeals involving more than 50 victims that the justices haven't yet accepted or declined.

The Shelby County case was the only one of many that was decided against the archdiocese, spokesman Dan Andriacco said. "We believe the other cases were decided rightly."

The high court said the ruling conflicts with one by the 1st Ohio District Court of Appeals in Cincinnati, which said the victims should have known they might have a claim against the church simply because the abuse occurred. "They had at the very least a duty to investigate the possibility that the Archdiocese was negligent or otherwise culpable," the 1st District said.

The Supreme Court earlier declined an appeal of that ruling, which upheld Hamilton County Common Pleas Court decisions to throw out several claims against a former priest because the deadline had passed. Those victims said they were abused in the 1950s and '60s at a Cincinnati church. The priest, John Berning, retired in 1970 to St. Petersburg, Fla., and died last November at age 97.

The cases could be decided instead by lawmakers, who are considering whether to eliminate the time limits for church sex abuse cases.

The Ohio Senate in March unanimously approved a bill that would extend the deadline for filing claims to 20 years after turning 18 years old. It also would allow victims to sue over alleged abuse that happened up to 35 years ago and add clergy to the list of professionals required to report suspected abuse. The bill is in the House, which has adjourned for the summer.

Several Catholic dioceses oppose the bill.

The Cincinnati archdiocese already has paid $3 million to 132 abuse victims under an agreement with prosecutors.