Efforts Against Abuse




Victims, Church Battle Over Ohio Bill

By Bill Frogameni, National Catholic Reporter
December 9, 2005

Members of the Ohio legislature heard deeply disturbing tales Nov. 22 from alleged victims testifying in favor of a state bill that would dramatically increase the statute of limitations for sexual abuse of minors. The new law, opposed by the Catholic Conference of Ohio, could have a significant effect on potential cases involving priests.

The current law allows allegations into civil court two years after the age of 18. Senate Bill 17, currently in front of the judicial committee in the Ohio House, extends the time from two years to 20. More important, say victims' advocates, is how SB 17 creates a one-year "look back" period allowing complaints to be fried for allegations up to 35 years old. SB 17 would also strengthen mandatory reporting laws for bishops, priests, counselors, teachers and others who suspect child sexual abuse.

The bill passed the Ohio Senate unanimously last March, but has been stalled in the House judiciary committee over spirited negotiations between victims' advocates and the Catholic Conference of Ohio (run by Ohio's bishops), which opposes the bill.

The Survivors Network for those Abused by Priests, SNAP, has taken a prominent role in support of the bill, but SB 17 applies more broadly to child sexual abuse and organizations complicit in such abuse--schools and counseling centers, for instance.

Timothy Luckhaupt, executive director of the Catholic Conference of Ohio, said the Ohio bishops support SB 17 fully with the sole exception of the one-year look back period. "This one-year window does not do anything to protect kids," said Luckhaupt. He pointed to the voluntary public reporting on credibly accused clerics that dioceses have done. Furthermore, Luckhaupt and the conference question the constitutionality of the look back: "There's plenty of case law in Ohio that shows the legislature does not have the authority to alter the statute of limitations."

Luckhaupt also acknowledged the financial health of the church is a significant concern, but said he couldn't weigh if it is more or less important than the constitutional issue.

Republican State Sen. Bob Spada, SB 17's sponsor, disagrees with the conference: "The way you get some of these names out ... is to have civil lawsuits that can allow parents and guardians to know who's in their neighborhood." Regarding the bishops' concern with SB 17's constitutionality, Spada said, "I think their main concern is self-preservation."

A special hearing was previously held to focus on the constitutional questions posed by the bill. One lawyer testified that the bill meets Ohio's constitutional requirements, whereas two others joined the conference in opposition. One of the latter, however, works as outside legal counsel for the conference.

The hearing room Nov. 22 in Columbus was filled to capacity. Several individuals stood along walls or sat on the floor. Testimony was piped into a crowded adjoining room. SNAP organizers say 115 survivors and supporters were in attendance. SB 17 proponents gave the committee a list of 67 individuals who hoped to testify, but the committee was able to hear from only 41. Testimony began at 9:30 a.m. and ran almost 12 hours, with 45 minutes for lunch.

The testimony included graphic accounts of abuse from a number of individuals. Christy Miller, co-leader of SNAP's Cincinnati chapter, testified she was abused repeatedly by a priest starting at age 14. Miller detailed one particular occasion: "It was rough and painful." She said the priest ejaculated, then left her on the floor. "This was not about love or mutually gratifying sex." Miller said her abuser, Fr. Tom Brunner, molested at least seven other girls. Brunner was put on leave of absence in 2003.

Committee chair Rep. John Willamowski said proponent testimony will resume Dec, 8. Opposition testimony will be scheduled after that. Willamowski said he believes the bill has a reasonable chance of coming to committee vote in January. At the present time, however, Willamowski says he hasn't taken a poll to see how committee members will vote because he thinks more deliberation is needed.

Among those testifying:

* David Clohessy, executive director of SNAP.

* Tony Comes, whose struggle with the Toledo diocese is chronicled in the 2004 Oscar-nominated documentary, "Twist of Faith."

* Sr. Ann-Marie Borgess of the Sisters of Notre Dame in Toledo. Borgess, 42, recently went public with the allegations that a priest began abusing her at age 4 and continued for many years. She says she stepped forward to aid SB 17.

* Dominican Fr. Thomas Doyle, who once worked in the office of the papal nuncio and became a victims' advocate in the early 1980s when he began to learn of abuse cases and the way the church was handling them. He was one of three authors of a detailed study in the 1980s that predicted the scope of the abuse crisis.

* Four other current Catholic priests, three of whom claim to be survivors of clerical abuse.

* Patrick Wall, a former Benedictine monk and canon lawyer who now works as an aid for a law firm that represents alleged victims. Wall said, "The church has known about [clerical abuse] since the fourth century with exact and precise knowledge." Wall also testified that bishops are required by canon law to keep secret archives on troublesome priests.

Also present were Barbara Blaine, SNAP's founder, and Barbara Dorris, from SNAP's national office. Blaine signaled her intention to testify at the Dec. 8 hearing. Members of Voice of the Faithful, a group formed in the wake of the scandal in the Boston archdiocese in 2002, also testified.

If SB 17 passes, Ohio will become the third state to enact such legislation. Similar bills have been passed in California and Illinois.


Columbus, Ohio

[Bill Frogameni is a freelance writer living in Ann Arbor, Mich. He has written extensively about clerical sex abuse in Toledo, Ohio, and has contributed to Salon.com and other outlets.]

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