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Published: Wednesday, 11/23/2005

Clerical abuse victims press legislators to lift limit on lawsuits

BY JIM PROVANCE
BLADE COLUMBUS BUREAU

COLUMBUS - "Where was the outcry? Where was the outrage?" asked Mike Chakers yesterday as he stood next to his two adult sons.

Both, he told the Ohio House Judiciary Committee, were sexually abused by the same Cincinnati priest more than 20 years ago, and he said he's still listening for the outrage from the Catholic Church.

"My youngest son confided in me not long ago that his first sexual experience when he was just a young boy came literally at the hands of a priest," Mr. Chakers said. "How terribly sick and perverted."

More than 100 people, many of them claiming to be victims of sexual abuse at the hands of the clergy, attended a day-long hearing to voice support for a bill establishing a one-time, one-year window to revive civil cases for which the statute of limitations has long expired.

They told the committee that the bill is about receiving an overdue apology, getting justice, restoring self-respect, and publicly exposing accused members of the clergy. But they also admit that sometimes it's about money.

"If a bishop believes he's going to lose millions of dollars because he didn't supervise a priest properly, he'll watch him. I guarantee it," said Patrick J. Wall, a former California monk, priest, and canonical judge who once helped defend the church against sexual-abuse allegations.

The controversial bill would allow victims of abuse as long ago as 1970 to file civil lawsuits against their abusers as well as those they believe protected those abusers and covered up their crimes. The Catholic Church maintains that retroactively reviving cases as old as 35 years would be unconstitutional, a point on which the Judiciary Committee is divided.

The church does not object to another provision that would expand the statute of limitations for future victims to file suits to 20 years beyond the age of 18. The current limit is two years after 18. The bill also would add priests, rabbis, ministers, and other nonvolunteer members of the clergy to those professionals mandated under law to report suspected child abuse to authorities.

The Senate unanimously approved the bill in March.

"My heart goes out to these people," said Tim Luckhaupt, executive director of the Catholic Conference of Ohio.

But he said he believes the House should wait until after the Ohio Supreme Court rules on a pair of pending cases in which southwestern Ohio courts allowed civil suits to proceed after the time limit had expired because of an alleged cover-up by the church.

"If [the court is] going to say that the statute of limitations was viable, that you had two years to bring this cause, what would make us believe that the court would say that turning back the clock for a year would be any more constitutional?" he asked outside the hearing room.

"We've got some perverts, obviously," he said. "There are perverts that exist in other walks of life too, but for a priest to abuse makes it another matter. Still, I think we can assure them we are screening everybody who works with kids through the fingerprinting, background checks, and training they have to go through."

Tony Comes, a Toledo firefighter whose story of abuse at the hands of a Roman Catholic priest was depicted in the Oscar-nominated documentary Twist of Faith, told the committee that he won't be able to take advantage of the law because he has settled his case with the Diocese of Toledo.

"It thrills me not that 100-plus victims must once again publicly eviscerate ourselves to pass legislation that on its face is common sense," he said.

Contact Jim Provance at:

jprovance@theblade.com

or 614-221-0496.



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