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Sex-victims group targets Lanzinger

A Toledo group formed to fight for victims of clerical sexual abuse has turned its sights on the candidacy of Judith Ann Lanzinger for the Ohio Supreme Court.

The group - Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, or SNAP - claims Judge Lanzinger had a conflict of interest and showed poor judgment for leading a committee of the Toledo Catholic Diocese that drafted policies dealing with reports of abuse while she was serving as a Lucas County Common Pleas Court judge.

SNAP charges that Judge Lanzinger's committee approved a policy in 1995 that was vaguely worded and failed to make clear that allegations of child abuse should immediately be reported to the police rather than to a diocesan case manager.

The victims' group also said her leadership of the diocesan panel from May, 1993, until October, 2002, created a potential conflict of interest involving lawsuits filed against the diocese. The group contended that abuse victims would be hesitant to appeal their cases to the Ohio Supreme Court if Judge Lanzinger wins the election on Nov. 2.

A Republican now on the 6th District Court of Appeals, she is running against Democrat Nancy Fuerst, a Cuyahoga County Common Pleas Court judge, for the seat to be vacated by retiring Democratic Justice Francis Sweeney.

Judge Lanzinger said the policy drafted by the 11-member Bishop's Study Committee on Sexual Abuse for the Toledo diocese was not ambiguous and that it was one of the first in the country to address allegations of sexual abuse against priests and to seek ways to prevent more instances of abuse.

"We made sure that all civil and criminal aspects of Ohio law were followed," she said.

The dispute over the policy that Judge Lanzinger's committee wrote comes down to who should be "immediately" notified in case of suspected abuse.

The policy, SNAP says, is confusing because it states in one paragraph that diocese workers who witness or suspect abuse should "immediately" inform law-enforcement officials. Another paragraph in the policy states that church employees should "immediately" inform the diocese's case manager when they witness or suspect abuse.

Claudia Vercellotti, co-coordinator of the Toledo chapter of SNAP, said that by telling people to report to a diocesan case manager, charges could be delayed or even buried by church officials.

"Those delays strip individuals of legal remedy because the statute of limitations can expire," Ms. Vercellotti said. "All victims want is their day in court, and they don't get that" because of the statute of limitations.

She said such policies should be designed to send "a clear message" that allegations of criminal sexual abuse should first be reported to police, prosecutors, or the Children's Services Board.

The policy formulated by Judge Lanzinger's committee was revised in February, 2004, to more clearly instruct diocesan employees to call police first, after which they should notify diocesan officials about alleged sexual abuse of minors.

The revisions were made to bring the diocese into compliance with a 2002 charter adopted by the U.S. Conference of Catholic bishops on handling allegations of abuse.

Judge Lanzinger was elected to the Common Pleas bench in 1989 and served in that post until she won a seat on the Court of Appeals in 2002.

Judge Lanzinger resigned her post on the diocesan committee in 2002 after a complaint was filed with the Disciplinary Counsel of the Ohio Supreme Court about her work on the committee.

The complaint was filed by Linda Waters of Sandusky, who said last week that she had "a big concern that the judge agreed to serve as chairman of a committee that potentially dealt with cases that would have been heard in the Court of Common Pleas." At the time, Judge Lanzinger acknowledged the complaint and that the Supreme Court's disciplinary counsel had recommended that she step down from the church committee to avoid a potential conflict of interest.

Judge Lanzinger recently said she also resigned from the church panel in October, 2002, because lawsuits had been filed in Common Pleas Court alleging sexual abuse by priests and diocesan employees.

A total of 19 such lawsuits against the diocese were filed starting in April, 2002.

"I certainly wouldn't have been a judge in any of those cases," Judge Lanzinger said. "But once lawsuits were filed, I stepped down."

David Clohessy, national director of SNAP, said he believes the guidelines drawn up by Judge Lanzinger's panel in 1995 were misleading.

"I think your average person, and certainly your average victim, would read this policy and say, 'I'm supposed to call the diocese, not the cops.' " he said. "She could have chosen to write very explicitly that the abuse of children is a crime and should be reported to police."

If church officials are notified before law-enforcement authorities, Mr. Clohessy said, "there is a chance for evidence to be destroyed, witnesses to be tampered with, and victims to be intimidated."

He cited a case in Chicago where the archdiocese was notified of allegations against a priest before police were informed. Within hours, Mr. Clohessy said, "The priest hopped on a plane to India," and eluded authorities.

Judge Lanzinger said the controversy being raised by SNAP involves a committee that met "a long time ago." She also said that it would be inappropriate for her to comment on the workings of the committee she led now that she is no longer a member.

Contact David Yonke at: dyonke@theblade.com or 419-724-6154.

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