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Published: Wednesday, 12/21/2005

The bishops' stone wall

OHIO'S Roman Catholic bishops made a strategic mistake last week when they sent one of their relative newcomers to appear before the Ohio House Judiciary Committee on legislation that would open a new avenue for civil lawsuits alleging long-ago sexual abuse by clergy.

Lawmakers had been hoping for some answers and explanation on public policy changes to deal with the realization that the church hierarchy covered up such abuse for decades. What they got, instead, was yet another variation on official stonewalling.

It came in the form of testimony from Bishop Frederick Campbell, of the Columbus diocese, who has been in office just 11 months and has had little experience with abuse cases.

Damning with faint praise, the committee's chairman, Rep. John Willamowski, of Lima, described Bishop Campbell as "one of the most decent and honorable people who could come before us, but also one of the least knowledgeable."

Indeed, when another lawmaker asked pointed questions about what he said was the church's long-standing policy of "moving priests [accused of abuse] and flat-out lying to people," Bishop Campbell said he was "appalled" by such behavior but could not comment on the reaction of any of his fellow bishops.

To their credit, the committee members weren't being blinded by this fog of ignorance. After the hearing was over, Mr. Willamowski made it clear that the bishops' proposal for a statewide registry of abusive priests isn't sufficient to solve the problem.

"We really have a lot of victims in limbo that [church officials] really wish would go away," he said.

What the bishops desperately want to forestall is Senate Bill 17, which would open a one-year "look back" period in which victims of child sexual abuse could file civil lawsuits. The age limit, now 20, would be extended to 38. Passed by the Senate last spring, the legislation is due for a vote in the House early in 2006.

The overriding concern, readily apparent at last week's hearing, is not for the victims of abuse but that the church might be ruined financially by lawsuits.

Why, Bishop Campbell said, his diocese might even lose its insurance coverage.

The victims, we maintain, are not the church and its clergy but the children who lost their innocence and sense of trust early in life to predatory priests.

While church officials have raised questions about the constitutionality of the "look back" lawsuit window, it is clear that a growing number of legislators believe the church has acted badly in minimizing or covering up abuse by priests and that the real victims deserve additional redress.

As investigations in Toledo by The Blade and in other major Ohio cities have shown, the painful reality of sexual abuse by members of the Catholic clergy won't go away. And no amount of stonewalling by the bishops will change that fact.

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