The Toledo Catholic Diocese is stepping up its efforts to defeat a bill that would rewrite Ohio's statutes of limitations for victims of child sexual abuse.
Bishop Leonard Blair sent a letter to diocesan priests this week stating that Senate Bill 17 "should be of serious concern to all of us," and urged them to contact their state representatives to voice opposition to the legislation.
The bishop, who met with Ohio lawmakers last month to discuss the legislation, described the current bill as "watered down" compared to its original version.
The original bill, which he supported, would have made it mandatory for church volunteers as well as clergy and employees to report allegations of child sexual abuse. The current bill does not apply to church volunteers.
The diocese has asked pastors of all its 157 parishes in 19 counties in northwest Ohio to include informational sheets, titled "Questions and Answers About Senate Bill 17," in bulletins passed out in their churches this weekend. The bishop's letter and the Q&A also are published on the diocesan Web site, www.toledodiocese.org.
A key provision of S.B. 17, which was passed 31-0 by the Ohio Senate in March, and this week was sent to a House committee, is to extend the statutes of limitation for filing lawsuits over allegations of child sexual abuse.
Ohio law now requires civil suits to be filed within two years after the victim turns 18. The current bill would lengthen the statutes to 20 years after turning 18.
The diocese and the victims' advocacy group SNAP (Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests) are in agreement in calling for the statutes to be lengthened to 20 years after reaching adulthood.
Such a change in civil cases would match Ohio statutes for criminal law, which were extended in 1999.
But Bishop Blair and the state's other Catholic bishops strongly oppose an amendment that would set a one-year "look back" period during which victims could file civil suits over abuses that occurred as long as 35 years ago.
The Rev. Michael Billian, episcopal vicar of the diocese, also wrote a letter to priests and deacons this week, asking them to "identify those lay members of your parish and community who might have some prominence or influence, and ask them to join you in writing their representatives to ask their help in defeating the amendment to S.B. 17."
Bishop Blair called the bill "hastily amended" and said the look-back period "does nothing to protect our children in the future," but has "the potential to embroil both victims and the church in lengthy lawsuits, thus diverting our legal and financial resources away from our continuing efforts to protect children and from our ministries as a church."
In an interview this week, the bishop said the Toledo diocese repeatedly has urged victims of clerical sexual abuse to step forward no matter how long ago the crimes allegedly occurred.
"We have tried very hard to encourage people to bring forth any claims they have about alleged sexual abuse by clergy in the church," Bishop Blair said. "In addition to lawsuits, we have settled claims and cases through mediation that were never filed in court, and we remain open to mediation for future claims whether or not the civil statutes have expired."
Claudia Vercellotti, a coordinator of the Toledo chapter of SNAP, said the look-back provision would prevent dioceses from dealing with allegations in secrecy.
"There were 14 secret settlements in the Toledo diocese last year," she said. "Let's remove all the secrets. The diocese has promised honesty and transparency. So if it is operating transparently, you would think it would embrace the look-back."
She also challenged arguments that S.B. 17 is weaker than the original draft because it does not include volunteers in its mandatory-reporting language.
The bill did not have much teeth, she said, because in most cases the penalty for failing to report allegations of child sexual abuse would be only misdemeanor charges.
Sally Oberski, director of communications for the Toledo diocese, said the diocese would support stronger penalties for failure to report.
"We just want it done right," Ms. Oberski said. "We are not advocating child abuse, we are not trying to protect pedophile priests. We just want people to understand the implications of this bill if it passes in the form that it is in."
The Rev. Stephen Stanbery, a Toledo diocesan priest who has testified in legislative hearings in support of S.B. 17, said yesterday he believes child abuse victims need more time to report the crimes.
"I've been a priest 25 years, and people are just not able to come forward according to the law now, which requires them to come forward by age 20," Father Stanbery said. "I've dealt with people who have been molested by military people, parents, clergy, nonclergy - the whole gamut - and some of them have come forward in their 70s and 80s. They just are not able to come to grips with it by age 20."
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