Ohio's Victims of Clerical Sexual Abuse Left Frustrated by Senate Bill 17

By Todd Jarrett
Toledo City Paper [Ohio]
February 28, 2007

The Roman Catholic Church has been suspected of keeping secrets throughout its storied history. Some, like Father Thomas Doyle have written about this, and subsequently been censured, slandered or subjected to other retaliation from church hierarchy. According to Doyle, co-author of "Sex, Priests, and Secret Codes," and advocate for victims of Catholic clergy sexual abuse, secrecy is literally written into the canon law.

The church in the state of Ohio and the Catholic Diocese of Toledo do not represent exceptions to this rule. For this reason, the claimed victims of sexual abuse by priests, where the statute of limitations for bringing their claim to court has expired, find themselves in dismay over Ohio's recent passing of the civil registry, rather than the victim driven Senate Bill 17. The civil registry became law under the considerable influence of the Ohio's Conference of Catholic Bishops.

Butchered bill
According to Claudia Vercelotti, founder and leader of the Toledo chapter of SNAP, (Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests), the lawmakers' choice in 2005 was between the original Senate Bill 17, commonly referred to as "the Victim's Bill," and what was finally passed and signed by Governor Taft in May 2006, the amended SB 17.

The original bill would have granted victims of sexual abuse, for whom the statute of limitations for criminal charges had expired; a one-year window within which to file a civil suit against the perpetrator and those who protected him from public scrutiny. Abusive priests and the diocese for which they worked would be held accountable. Known as 'the civil window,' this idea was born in 2002 in a three-hour meeting between Sen. Teresa Fedor, Vercelotti and Chicago attorney and SNAP founder Barbara Blaine.

After sailing through the Senate, the bill was killed in the House. According to Blaine, House Speaker Jon Husted and company engaged in defeating the bill with "back door maneuvering by the Catholic bishops." In its place, and based upon what Sen. Fedor refers to as "the sole influence of the bishops," the legislature gutted "the Victim's Bill" and passed the amended version, which replaced the "civil window" with the "civil registry."

This new version was designed by House Majority Whip, attorney Bill Seitz (who works for the Taft Law firm in Cincinnati, which represented the Franciscans in that area diocese), making Ohio the only state in the country to pass such a law.

No solution?
Sen. Fedor is not aware of any other states even considered anything like this. "It is not a solution," she said.

The registry directs victims alleging abuse by priests to present their allegations first to the attorney general's office. If the attorney general, after review, declines to take the allegations before a judge, the victim must next approach the prosecuting attorney. If the prosecutor in the county where the alleged abuse occurred will not present the allegations, the victim may, with or without legal counsel, present the allegations to a single judge. There is no jury, no hearing and no traditional due process. If the judge finds the allegations credible, he or she may require that the priest register his name and residence with the local sheriff so that anyone who is so inclined may access that list and discover where this accused — but not charged, tried or convicted — sex offender lives. No further action will be taken. The priest need not be present in a courtroom or judge's chamber and may request that his name be omitted from the registry and the public not be notified. If the judge determines that the priest's name must be registered, after six years the priest may again request that his name be removed from the list.

There is no wording in the Ohio Revised Code indicating that the victim is required to be notified of this subsequent request. The civil registry however, is not up and running at this time, despite being signed by former Governor Bob Taft in May, 2006, and there are currently no names on the list.

Ohio Attorney General Marc Dann doesn't mince words on his opinion of the registry: "It's a sham."

SNAP to it
What the civil registry lacks, according to Vercelotti, is teeth. The perpetrators will be inconvenienced for a period of time, but there is no real penalty for the crimes they have committed and the lives they have damaged or destroyed. Secondly, those who are accused of harboring the perpetrators, hiding them away, moving them from parish to parish and allowing them to continue to leave victims in their wake, are protected. Not only are their names not mentioned on the registry, they are not required to turn over files kept about an accused priest. In other words, the Catholic Church's secret files remain secret. The public and the victims will never know the extent of any the church's investigation, information or cover up. Blaine says this is what the bishops were after when they began to wield their influence with lawmakers in Columbus. Money, in terms of legal costs, may well have been only a secondary concern, although this is debatable given the church's history of extraordinary wealth and power. According to Blaine, the primary concern was secrecy. "The church must, at all costs, avoid full disclosure to the public. This would likely represent a scandal so far reaching in scope that it could rock the church's reputation irreversibly, quite possibly sending the betrayed faithful fleeing."

Civil war
"The number one thing we are about is protecting the youth and helping victims as much as we can," said Sally Oberski, spokesperson for the Catholic Diocese of Toledo. "The civil registry was put in place so that abuse would not be allowed to occur in the future."

The idea is that if the names of abusive priests are on a list, which is accessible to the general public, people are more likely to be better informed. Tim Luckhaupt, lobbyist for the Ohio Conference of Catholic Bishops, says that licensing boards may be "required to consult the civil registry before granting an individual a license," which would further safeguard places such as schools and day care centers and would allow for full disclosure as much as a civil trial, because "the victim gets his day in court, gets to present his case and gets to have the alleged abusers name placed on a registry to prevent future victimization."

Luckhaupt also claims the church has established a counseling fund for victims, which will allow them to receive the help they need from a therapist of their choice, claiming "money received from a civil suit is not what victims need to heal." The civil registry is intended to do more to prevent future abuse and the counseling fund gives victims an opportunity to access the help they need at no cost to themselves.

Oberski adds that the church established the $3,000,000 fund in an effort to aid the victims. All of the information was distributed to the various parishes around the state and they are expected to make that available to their parishioners. According to, however, the window for receiving aid is only 18 months and the clock began ticking in Nov. 2006. Victims are granted a certain dollar amount, determined by a claims panel consisting of attorney and former Franklin County Judge Michael Close, Clinical Psychologist Dr. James Gebhart and Kim Davis from Children's Hospital Behavioral Health in Columbus, and based upon unspecified criteria in the claim form.

Once that amount has been expended, the victim is on her own. Plus, there are stipulations placed upon an individual to establish eligibility for a grant, including one which states that the victim must be willing to waive all present and future civil actions against the church. If a person has received or is likely to receive a monetary award in a lawsuit, he is not eligible to receive a counseling grant.

To SNAP leaders, this is just one more in a series of maneuvers calculated to make it appear as though the bishops honestly have the victims well-being at heart, while it only further insulates the church hierarchy from liability. Church leaders contend that this represents the ongoing efforts of the various dioceses to reach out to victims with hope. This, they argue, was the reason the bishops opposed the Victims Bill and urged lawmakers to adopt the civil registry. However, Oberski says, "The alleged coverup of files and withholding disclosure was not the reason for the civil registry."

Biblical inconsistency
Stephen Stanbery, a priest in charge of three parishes in the Catholic Diocese of Toledo, explains that the church's motivation behind the civil registry was twofold. The first was money. During the months leading up to the passage of the civil registry he says he "heard many priests and bishops discussing money and what the one-year window would likely cost the church in legal fees." The second is secrecy. Although Stanbery says he did not hear priests and bishops discussing this concern openly, he says has been subjected to the coverup on a first hand basis, claiming many questions remain unanswered, which implies that the deception is ongoing.

He cites some examples:
1. When Bishop Robert Donnelly and then Catholic Diocese of Toledo Schools Superintendent Archie Thomas recommended Dennis Gray to the Toledo Public Schools, were they aware of his history of sexual abuse of boys at Central Catholic High School? They claim they were uninformed, but, according to Stanbery, records seem to indicate otherwise.

2. Why do Bishop Blair and Diocese vicar Michael Billion insist that there was nothing in the 145 pages of previously concealed documents on Gerald Robinson, which was pertinent to Robinson's 2004-murder trial and the sexual abuse allegations against him? According to David Yonke's book on the Robinson trial and aftermath "Sin, Shame and Secrets," there was information in those documents pertinent to the 24-year-old murder case and some of those pages were referenced in court. Lucas County Prosecutor Julia Bates says there was no smoking gun, but when the investigators initially requested that the Diocese turn over the files on Robinson they were given only three pages. It wasn't until they returned with a warrant that another 145 pages were disclosed. As to whether or not this is the extent of it, Bates says simply, "Who knows?"

3. Why did Blair send a letter to all priests in the Catholic Diocese of Toledo in May, 2005, to be read before the parishioners stating that he had cooperated fully with police in the Robinson investigation? Prosecutor Bates, at the same time, in a front-page article in the Toledo Blade stated that he had not done so. While she was not considering charges at that time, she would not rule out that future possibility. Bates now says that it is difficult to pursue for a number of reasons, not the least of which is that diocesan files could be in any number of places from here to the Vatican and obtaining those would be impossible.
For asking questions such as these, Stanbery says he has been told by Blair that he is in need of spiritual and emotional counseling, and that Blair has further refused to meet with him or even to discuss such issues, saying that when he does so, Stanbery runs to the press.

A matter of constitutionality
According to Luckhaupt, allowing a one-year window for victims to file civil suits is unconstitutional, because "the Ohio Supreme Court does not allow for the opening of the statute of limitations." He says the Ohio Conference of Catholic Bishops proposed the civil registry as a solution in order to protect not only itself, but other organizations such as, schools, school boards, day-care centers and families from having their constitutional rights violated. "Our concern was for the entire community not merely the church," said Luckhaupt.

Blaine, however, claims the argument is indefensible, arguing that the civil registry is unconstitutional and the one-year window, on the other hand, is entirely constitutional. Marci Hamilton, constitutional law professor at Cordoza School of Law in New York City and former clerk for Justice Sandra Day O'Connor says, "Tactics alleging unconstitutionality are usually covers for other interests." Hamilton provided written testimony to this effect before the Ohio Senate Judiciary Committee and written and oral testimony before the House of Representatives while Victim's Bill 17 was being considered and that the opening of a one-year window for victims of abuse to file civil suits would only be unconstitutional if they were requesting substantive changes to the state statute of limitations which they were not doing. They were merely seeking procedural changes, and this is entirely constitutional.

"The majority of states (including Ohio) have moved so that civil actions taken after the statute of limitation has expired do not represent violations of the constitution," said Hamilton. "Actions taken on the criminal side however, would be a violation of the individual's constitutional rights."

The one-year window represents a civil suit and is constitutional in the state of Ohio. The civil registry, like the Megan's Law list of registered sex offenders, is unconstitutional in that "the government is not allowed to release names and identify people as criminals without due process." The civil registry does not entail due process and therefore, even one of the church's attorneys at the meetings held for compromises on the bill, stated that future defense attorneys for priests would argue unconstitutionality.

"Any responsible attorney would immediately argue that the civil registry is unconstitutional. That is the political brilliance of the ruling. It can't be applied as long as the issue of constitutionality is being argued," said Hamilton. According to Miller, thus far, only a single case has been brought before a judge - in Cincinnati in early December. That case has been postponed until April.

"I'm not surprised that no more have come forward. The victim has to pay for the attorney and other legal fees and for what? The possibility that the perpetrators name may be put on a list. How many victims have that kind of money. All of this is calculated to do very little to protect children," said Hamilton.

Sen. Fedor, who fought for the Victim's Bill says, "The look back period would have allowed us to not continue the cycle of abuse. An abuser could have as many as 300 victims in a lifetime. Those children then have problems with drugs, alcohol and crime. The social implications of a single abuser are enormous."

As a result, proponents of Victim's Bill 17 say children in Ohio not only remain at risk, but have been placed at a greater risk. According to their argument, the meaninglessness of the civil registry will embolden predators.

"Bill Sietz rants and raves about bad bills and then he designs and promotes this overdue diligence to protect children. Instead he protected those who abuse the most vulnerable. I don't know how he sleeps at night," said Fedor.

Once the Victim's Bill passed the Senate, the bishops organized. Arriving at the state house in full Roman regalia, the lawmakers were intimidated by the religious veneer, according to Fedor. Referring to the bishops, Fedor says, "The same people who are supposed to protect the children of our society are the ones who are hurting them the most."

California is the other state on the cutting edge of this debate. Lawmakers there have adopted the equivalent of Ohio's originally draft of SB 17 and allow victims of abuse a one year window in which to file civil suits. The civil registry was not a consideration and as a result of the law, the Catholic Church in California has disclosed 10,000 pages of previously hidden files. Additionally, 417 priests in California stand accused of sexual abuse, the highest single number of any state in the country. Vercelotti is convinced that this is a direct result of the civil window.

Full disclosure?
While the church attempts to assure its constituents that full disclosure has taken place, the evidence tells a different story. According to, (Center for Sex Offender Management), only 12 percent of rapes of people 12 years and older are ever reported and roughly 30 percent of molestation cases against children are ever reported. In addition, Doyle writes: "Reporting abuse and confronting bishops or superiors has resulted in a revictimization at the hands of the bishops and church lawyers who do not shy away from accusations, humiliations, and impugning motives so that the victims can be made out to be the criminals." If this is the case, then it is likely that investigations to this point have only begun to scratch the surface of what has actually taken place in the shadow of the cathedral. But the devil is in the details as they say and the details, as they emerge, seem to leave more questions than answers in their wake.


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