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Published: Thursday, 3/10/2005

2 senators seeking to relax limits on lawsuits

BLADE COLUMBUS BUREAU

COLUMBUS - A pair of Democratic senators yesterday called for greatly expanding the time window for victims of past and future abuse by clergy to file lawsuits against their abusers and those who shield them.

They hope to add the provision to a bill in the Senate Criminal Justice Committee mandating that any rabbi, priest, minister, other clergy, or laypersons acting on behalf of religious institutions report any abuse or neglect of a child.

The amendment, pushed by Sens. Teresa Fedor (D., Toledo) and Marc Dann (D., Youngstown), would expand the future statute of limitations for bringing a sexual abuse lawsuit from the current six years to 20 years. It would also open a one-year window for victims of past abuse to come forward and bring action, regardless of how long ago the abuse occurred.

Like current law, the time limit would not start running for a child until he turned 18.

"The burden of proof still remains on the plaintiff," Mr. Dann said. "Proving a court case older than 20 years old or even 20 years old, from my court experience, would be very hard to do. I'm not optimistic that we would get judgments."

The debate occurs as authorities continue to seek evidence that the Catholic church participated in a cover-up of sexual abuse of children by priests, with some cases dating back decades.

Sen. Jim Jordan (R., Urbana), the committee's chairman, said majority Republicans will talk today about how they want to proceed.

"The victims of abuse have been pretty compelling about how this is different, making a good case about why this should be an exception," he said. "But as chairman, I have to figure out how to get the bill into a form that will pass. I'm sympathetic to the idea of a one-year retroactivity window, but I'm also concerned about the precedent that it sets."

The two Democrats yesterday were surrounded by several people holding pictures of themselves as children, people who argue that the courthouse doors have been closed to them because they waited too long to come forward.

Toledo native Barbara Blaine, president of the national Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, settled her complaint against the Catholic church for $80,000 in 1994 after she accused Toledo priest Chet Warren of sexually abusing her when she was a student at St. Pius X School in the 1960s and 1970s. Mr. Warren was removed from ministry after Ms. Blaine and four other women accused the priest of abusing them, church documents show.

Now living in Chicago, she waited until she was 30 before coming forward. "By that time, the statute of limitations had run out," she said. "The Lucas County police officers and prosecutors were extremely compassionate when I reported it to them, but they couldn't do anything."

- Jim Provance



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