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Published: Sunday, 4/2/2006

Closing a door to the past

There's plenty of shame to go around in the halls of state government after the watering down of legislation that would have given men and women sexually abused by predatory priests a last chance for justice.

First, shame on Ohio's Roman Catholic bishops, who won their fight to gut the bill. And shame on the dealmakers in the General Assembly, who helped the bishops prevail by meekly genuflecting before the altar of political expediency.

What's left is a significantly weakened measure creating a civil registry of alleged abusers that is of dubious constitutionality. How can people be blacklisted who've never been convicted of anything? It is a testament to the inability of weak-kneed lawmakers to stand up to the church and give victims of clergy abuse a meaningful legal opportunity to press their claims.

Particularly troublesome are the back-room deals that scuttled the bill's toughest provision, a year-long "look back" window allowing civil lawsuits alleging abuse up to 35 years ago. House Speaker Jon Husted reportedly vowed to kill the entire bill if the look-back provision were not removed. He denied it, but the allegation came from a fellow Republican, Sen. Jeff Jacobson.

Also, Senate leaders were reported to have traded approval of the weaker bill by that chamber for tougher penalties against strip clubs, contained in separate legislation. That's one way to explain the sudden collapse of support in the Senate, which only the day before wanted its stronger version.

We have consistently argued for openness and accountability by the Catholic Church. But throughout more than a year of debate, the church's bottom line was that passage of the provision would result in so many lawsuits that it would prove ruinous to church finances. Such a claim rings hollow in view of the church's long and painful record at the local, state, and national levels of minimizing claims of abuse and allowing abuser priests to escape criminal prosecution.

Despite its defects, some good may eventually be done through the surviving legislation, which makes it a crime for priests, rabbis, ministers, and other church employees to fail to report suspected abuse by clerics. In addition, the bill extends the statute of limitations on future abuse lawsuits from two years to 12 years after the victim turns 18.

Even so, the Ohio bishops did nothing to redress the painful past.

Catholicism is a top-down religion that too often considers the rights and interests of the flock secondary. But as we have said all along, the victims here are not the church and its clergy but the children who lost their innocence and sense of trust to predatory priests.



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