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Published: Friday, 4/22/2005

Bishops battle Ohio abuse plan

BY JIM PROVANCE
BLADE COLUMBUS BUREAU

COLUMBUS - A pair of Catholic bishops held a rare private meeting with the speaker of the Ohio House this week to voice concerns over proposed legislation creating a brief opportunity for lawsuits to be filed in decades-old child sexual abuse cases.

Bishop Leonard Blair of Toledo and Bishop Frederick Campbell of Columbus had requested the Wednesday meeting with Speaker Jon Husted (R., Kettering), a rare instance of bishops personally involving themselves in Ohio's legislative process.

Sally Oberski, spokesman for the Toledo Diocese, confirmed the meeting took place and that the abuse bill was the subject. She declined to further discuss the meeting. Bishop Campbell's office said he was unavailable for comment.

"They expressed serious concerns about provisions of the bill ... ," said Scott Borgemenke, Mr. Husted's chief of staff.

"I would consider bishops to be much like CEOs. They do not get involved in the day-to-day process of lobbying, but occasionally CEOs and bishops show up for things that are important," he said.

The Senate, following highly emotional floor debate, unanimously approved the controversial bill last month.

The legislation would extend the statute of limitations for civil lawsuits involving all child sexual abuse cases to 20 years beyond the point at which the victim turns 18. The current limit is two years.

The Catholic Church supports that provision as well as another adding clergy to the list of those mandated to report suspected abuse to authorities. But it objects to a one-year "look-back" period for those victimized as long as 35 years ago to file suits.

"They didn't invite me," said Sen. Bob Spada (R., Royalton), the bill's sponsor. He noted the bill has yet to be referred to a House committee for hearings.

Allegations of abuse by priests and subsequent cover-ups by the church have led to out-of-court settlements and public apologies from the pulpit, including one on March 13 by Bishop Blair.

"It is devastating to me that the Catholic leader of my church would be the biggest advocate for promoting immunity for sex criminals and those who cover up sex crimes," said Claudia Vercellotti, coordinator of the Toledo chapter of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests chapter.

Although the measure passed the Senate unanimously, its future in the House is in doubt.

The Republican-controlled General Assembly has been moving in the opposite direction in recent years when it comes to civil litigation, tightening time restraints for civil suits, not expanding them.

Tim Luckhaupt, executive director of the Catholic Conference of Ohio, declined to comment on what occurred during the meeting. But he said the church believes the retroactive "look-back" provision is unconstitutional.

"If the [Ohio] Supreme Court rules this unconstitutional, then all of the civil trials that have taken place up to that point in time would be null and void," he said.

"The persons who have suffered this abuse to begin with, which was horrible enough, who have gone through a civil trial, and who have relived those same experiences, will be shattered again," he said.

Sen. Teresa Fedor (D., Toledo), a champion of the bill, said she and several other senators recently met with representatives of the Cleveland diocese. She said they did not directly ask that the bill be shelved.

"They were explaining their new process for dealing with people who come forward with allegations," she said.

Contact Jim Provance at:

jprovance@theblade.com or

614-221-0496.



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