Supreme Court Hears Priest Limit Arguments

By Dan Horn
Cincinnati Enquirer
January 26, 2006

COLUMBUS - Victims of sexual abuse by priests asked the Ohio Supreme Court on Wednesday to allow them to sue the Catholic Church, even if the deadline for filing such lawsuits expired decades ago.

A lawyer for abuse victims argued that the emotional trauma they suffered made it impossible for many to file lawsuits in the time allowed under Ohio's statute of limitations.

Under current law, victims are required to sue within two years after they turned 18.

More than 60 people in the Archdiocese of Cincinnati - and dozens of others statewide - have sued church officials for failing to protect them from abusive priests.

Many of those cases have been dismissed in lower courts because the lawsuits were filed years, or even decades, after the statute of limitations expired.

The Supreme Court has been asked to settle the dispute because a few cases have been allowed to proceed. "We're talking about cases where children have been raped by authority figures," Mason attorney Konrad Kircher told the justices. "These children can barely function when they are 18. ... They go through the guilt and the shame and they cannot comprehend what happened to them."

Church lawyers say it would be unfair to change the statute of limitations years after the abuse allegedly occurred.

They say the statute exists because it is difficult to prove or defend against accusations so many years later.

Mark VanderLaan, a lawyer for the Archdiocese of Cincinnati, told the justices that making exceptions to the statute for clergy-abuse victims would essentially wipe out a longstanding state law.

"That kind of rationale seems to kind of drive a stake through the heart of the notion of statutes of limitations," VanderLaan said.

Although the seven justices expressed no opinions, their questions to both lawyers suggested at least some of them had concerns about allowing exceptions to the statute.

Some questioned whether state lawmakers should be considering the issue, rather than the courts.

"That is a very persuasive argument," Chief Justice Thomas Moyer told Kircher during arguments today. "But isn't it an argument that should be made in the General Assembly?"

The arguments Wednesday focused on a case that involves a 36-year-old Shelby County man who claims he was abused by the Rev. Thomas Hopp for three years, starting at age 12. Hopp was working in St. Michael's parish in Fort Loramie, north of Dayton, at the time.

The archdiocese has barred Hopp from ever working in public ministry again.

The case involves only one alleged victim, but attorneys on both sides have said the Supreme Court's decision could affect dozens of clergy abuse cases around the state.

A decision could come within three to six months.

Abuse victims also are seeking help from the state legislature.

A bill pending before the Ohio House would extend the statute of limitations to 20 years in abuse cases and would allow a one-year "look-back" period, during which victims could sue as far back as 35 years.

"If one thing has been made perfectly clear today, it's that we need better laws," said Christy Miller, co-leader of Cincinnati's chapter of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests.


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