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Abuse Knows No Time Limit, Ohio House Told

Jim Siegel - THE COLUMBUS DISPATCH
Wednesday, November 23, 2005

It started with a kiss for his birthday. It progressed into almost nightly phone calls and daily rides to various locations, when she was always the first one picked up and the last dropped off.

Christy Miller knew the entire schedule of a priest at her all-girl Catholic high school. He even made sure the 14-year-old girl gave confessions only to him, she told the Ohio House Judiciary Committee yesterday.

Then Miller testified, in graphic detail, how the man she trusted had sexually abused her in his bedroom.

Committee Chairman John R. Willamowski asked her why she didn't file a civil lawsuit when she turned 18.

"I was busy forgetting about it," the 37-year-old West Chester woman replied quickly.

Similar victims who had waited months to tell their stories to House lawmakers packed two hearing rooms yesterday and delivered stirring, emotional testimony recounting abuse they said they endured and the residual effects that often include drug and alcohol abuse, emotional trauma and difficulty establishing relationships or trust.

When the stories were told to state senators early in the year, they helped push the unanimous passage of Senate Bill 17. The sex-abuse notification bill includes a controversial provision to open a one-year window during which any person who has suffered child abuse in the past 35 years can file a lawsuit.

Under current law, the statute of limitations runs out when the victim turns 20.

Supporters said the one-year window is vital to bring some closure to victims who never got their day in court, and to expose child molesters who, because the clock ran out on their cases, were never convicted and still have access to children.

"The impact of being abused by someone you trust, in what should be the safest place on earth, has a lifelong impact and a deep pain," said Sandra Kirkham, of Cincinnati, who said she was abused at age 17 by a youth minister in the Church of Christ. "This bill is a chance for some kind of justice."

But the measure has stalled in the House, where the Roman Catholic Church has lobbied to defeat the one-year window provision, arguing that it's unnecessary, unconstitutional and could provide significant financial hardships. Leaders also say the church has made great strides to clean up its ranks and prevent future abuse.

"You can't help but be moved by what you heard today," said Timothy Luckhaupt, executive director of the Catholic Conference of Ohio. "But the people I deal with right now, who are dealing with the victims that come forward, are very compassionate and understanding."

California opened a similar window in 2003 and about 800 lawsuits were filed.

The Catholic Church was pummeled by abuse victims yesterday who accused church leaders of an ongoing coverup that, instead of kicking child molesters out of the priesthood, led to more young victims.

Claudia Vercellotti, of Toledo, a leader of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, displayed documents enlarged on poster boards to highlight what she said is a pattern of cover-ups and broken promises by church leaders who fail to completely sever ties with priests accused of sexual abuse.

Vercellotti was asked whether it's fair to allow civil lawsuits for sexual abuse committed decades ago, when it was thought that priests could be treated and returned to the church.

"It was still criminal," she said. "It was criminal and they knew it and they did it anyway."

Supporters said the bill would send a message that state lawmakers aren't going to stand for the kind of abuse that's been permitted by church leaders.

"If a bishop believes he's going to lose millions of dollars because he did not supervise a priest properly, he’ll watch him," said Patrick J. Wall, of California, who has helped defend the Catholic Church in numerous sexual-abuse cases.

Willamowski, a Lima Republican, said he's still unsure whether the one-year window for civil lawsuits must be revised to get enough votes to pass the bill. Bill sponsor Sen. Robert F. Spada, R-North Royalton, wants to keep the provision intact.

"I don't know what else they can come up with that would accomplish the same thing," he said.

jsiegel@dispatch.com

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Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests
www.snapnetwork.org