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Tuesday, October 21, 2014
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Published: Thursday, 3/24/2005

Redressing clergy abuse

THE bill may be unconstitutional but the cause is certainly righteous.

That's a realistic way to look at legislation passed by the Ohio Senate to give victims of childhood sexual abuse an extended opportunity to confront their abusers in court, even if the molestation occurred as far back as 1970.

While the measure would apply to all victims of childhood sexual abuse, it is aimed squarely at giving redress in civil lawsuits to those who were abused by clergy, chiefly from the Roman Catholic Church.

In Columbus to observe passage of the bill was Tony Comes, the Toledo firefighter whose bravely told story of abuse by a local priest in the 1980s was chronicled in a documentary movie nominated for an Academy Award this year.

While Mr. Comes' lawsuit against the Toledo Catholic Diocese has been settled, he believes the legislation is an overdue recognition that no one, including priests, is above the law.

The bill would extend Ohio's statute of limitations to allow abuse victims to file civil lawsuits up to the age of 38. Currently, victims must file within two years of reaching adulthood at 18. The proposal would extend the limitation to 20 years.

Moreover, victims who claim they weren't ready to face the psychological trauma of an abuse case at age 20 would have a one-year window of opportunity to file for abuse that occurred up to 35 years from the time the bill becomes law.

This retroactive provision has raised objections, chiefly from the Catholic Church, which argues that it would amount to an ex post facto law that is prohibited by the constitution. The legislation also poses questions of whether it might invite unfounded lawsuits, how abuse that allegedly occurred decades ago could be proven, and even such legal and psychological quagmires as repressed memory.

These issues could be resolved in further debate in the legislature or, ultimately, in court if the measure becomes law. In any event, the church, which has stalled and stonewalled attempts to expose and prosecute abusers among its clergy over the years, remains a decidedly unsympathetic figure in this debate.

Indeed, Tim Luckhaupt, executive director of the Catholic Conference of Ohio, seemed to cast the church as a victim when he said, "The biggest issue is what is the cost going to be. If everything goes through the way it is, it has a real good opportunity of bankrupting the church. I think that's the bottom line."

The church is supposed to be a force for moral, ethical, and spiritual good in our society, but it will never succeed in mending its reputation as long as its leaders appear more concerned about money than about the people who were horribly abused by those they trusted in the religious community.



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