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Published: Thursday, 1/6/2005

Proposal would aid victims of sex abuse

BY ROBIN ERB
BLADE STAFF WRITER

A Democratic lawmaker from Toledo is hoping events in California - where earlier this week there was a reported record $100 million settlement between the Roman Catholic Diocese of Orange County and dozens of victims of sexual abuse - may give alleged Ohio victims a better chance to have their day in court.

State Rep. Teresa Fedor (D., Toledo) has been drawing up legislation that might make that situation easier.

Under her proposal - it is not a bill yet - Ohio would temporarily suspend its current two-year statute of limitations on cases of past sexual abuse involving minors. It is something that California did in 2003, leading to filings of hundreds of cases, including many that were part of a recent settlement between nearly 90 victims and the Orange County diocese.

Many of the California cases were decades old; the earliest allegation dated to 1936.

"The children not only need to be protected, they need to see justice served," Ms. Fedor said. "If we in Ohio can't iron that out, then we need to re-evaluate what we're doing as legislators."

Ms. Fedor, who said she has met with other senators' staffs about her proposal, said she expects some opposition - but only at first.

"We need our religious communities to come together and protect our children," she said. "I don't know how you can be against that."

Because Ohio's statute of limitations on such lawsuits is two years, complaints against the church have been stymied in court, according to local advocates for the alleged victims. In December, the Ohio Supreme Court declined to hear a case claiming the Archdiocese of Cincinnati failed to protect children from a priest who, according to the lawsuit, abused children in the 1950s and 1960s. Lower courts had ruled that the case exceeded the statute of limitations.

The statute of limitations is "an absolute bar," said Catherine Hoolahan, an attorney who has handled more than a dozen complaints against the Diocese of Toledo. The diocese has settled more than a dozen cases out of court because it chose to do so, she said.

"They'll mediate with me, but they know .●.●. they can hang tough and say, 'Go away.' They can do that. They have that legal right," she said.

John Hayward, attorney for the diocese, said the decision to mediate "gets to the notion of what's fair and appropriate for a church."

Because dioceses around the country have reacted differently to complaints by alleged victims, he said, it is not fair to suddenly change a "long standing principle of law."

"These matters have been handled differently from one diocese to another," he said. "I'd be hesitant to speculate on what might be fair in California versus what might be fair in Ohio."

If Ms. Fedor follows through with a bill, hers may not be the only headache in Columbus for churches.

Sen. Bob Spada (R., North Royalton) is considering re-introducing a failed bill from two years ago that would have shored up the language in the state's mandatory reporting laws involving suspected child abuse.

Under Senator Spada's proposal, "clerics" would be placed in the same class as police, teachers, and other professionals who are legally mandated to report suspected child abuse. Under the existing law, "a person rendering spiritual treatment through prayer in accordance with the tenets of a well-recognized religion" are included in the same category, but Senator Spada and others have been concerned that the wording was vague.

His failed bill called for language that would make reporting mandatory for any "cleric; any person designated by any church, religious society, or faith." But anything told in a "sacred trust" situation, such as a confession to a priest, still remains confidential.

Contact Robin Erb at:

robinerb@theblade.com

or 419-724-6133.



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