A Tough-Minded Decision

Cincinnati Post [Ohio]
June 2, 2006

The Ohio Supreme Court made a tough-minded decision this week in a case involving a man who said he'd been victimized as a child by a Catholic priest.

The court, in a 5-2 ruling, held that the statute of limitations then in effect means that it is now too late for the 36-year-old plaintiff to bring a civil suit against the Archdiocese of Cincinnati, Archbishop Daniel Pilarczyk or the priest, Thomas Hopp.

Though it's galling to see the archdiocese rewarded for hardball tactics and relieved of liability for abuse perpetrated by priests it knew to be pedophiles, the court made the correct decision.

The law in effect at the time held that lawsuits against the employer of a sexual predator must be filed within two years after the victim became a legal adult - in other words, by the time the victim turned 20 - provided that at the time of the abuse the victim knew the identity of the perpetrator, knew the perpetrator's employer and knew that abuse had occurred.

The plaintiff (identified in court only as John Doe) said in the suit that he was molested between 1980 and 1983 when he was a teenager at Saint Michael Church in Fort Laramie, Ohio. But, he said, he didn't become aware until news reports surfaced in 2002 that others had accused Hopp of abuse, and thus had no reason until then to believe that the archdiocese had been aware of his behavior. Hence, his attorneys argued, the statute of limitations clock should have started running then.

(Hopp, according to an Associated Press account, has acknowledged abusing children, and last year was banned by the Vatican from priestly work. But he has denied abusing the plaintiff in this case.)

The court majority concluded that the plaintiff knew all he needed to know to file suit when he became an adult in 1986, and that the reports of other alleged victims were thus irrelevant.

As Justice Evelyn Lundberg Stratton noted, statutes of limitation serve a vital function in the legal system by encouraging prompt prosecution of cases, suppressing stale or fraudulent claims and avoiding the evidence-related problems so common in older cases. Without them, litigation would be endless.

Moreover, allowing the lawsuit to go forward would have put the court in the position of rewriting Ohio's statute of limitations law. That, the court noted, is properly the province of the Legislature.

As it happens, the Ohio General Assembly recently passed a law that extends the statute of limitations for child sex abuse victims to age 30. And lawmakers specifically declined to approve an amendment that would have created a one-year window for lawsuits against the church for abuses as far back as 35 years.

The handling of sex abuse claims in the Cincinnati archdiocese and the diocese of Covington has been strikingly different. In Cincinnati, church officials have invoked the statute of limitation defenses against civil suits. As part of a settlement that ended a criminal investigation, the archdiocese agreed to set up a $3 million fund to compensate abuse victims. In Covington, Bishop Roger Foys opted to effectively waive statute of limitations defenses and approved negotiations to settle a class action lawsuit; it led to the establishment of a settlement that will make as much as $85 million available to abuse victims.

While money alone cannot compensate victims for the damage they've suffered, and while the settlement has cost the diocese dearly in financial terms, Foys, we believe, took a compassionate approach consistent with the church's mission.

Victim advocates this week expressed frustration with the Ohio Supreme Court's decision. While the attorney for the victim in the case said told reporters he's pondering an appeal, the chances of success seem remote. But victims can take consolation in having exposed the wrongdoings of priests and cover-ups by the church. And, as Daniel Frondorf, a co-founder of the Cincinnati chapter of Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, told the Associated Press, "The press coverage has gotten the word out for people to know to keep an eye on their kids and keep an eye on their clergy." That, alas, is good advice.


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