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
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
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, heâ€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.