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Published: Saturday, 3/25/2006

Vote set on 'look-back' period in abuse cases

BY JIM PROVANCE
BLADE COLUMBUS BUREAU

COLUMBUS - The fate of a controversial proposal opening a one-year window for lawsuits by victims of child sexual abuse as long as 36 years ago could be decided next week in the Ohio House.

A conflicted House Judiciary Committee, which has struggled for a year to broker some compromise on a provision some members insist is unconstitutional is tentatively set to vote Tuesday with a full House vote as early as Wednesday.

The question is whether it will include that one-time, one-year "look-back" period to file claims for incidents dating back as far as 1970 against accused abusers and those accused of covering for them.

The measure, which expands from 20 to 38 the age at which victims may sue in the future for past child abuse and adds the clergy to those mandated to report suspected abuse, is expected to pass both the committee and House.

It applies to all child sex-abuse cases, but it is clearly aimed at the Catholic Church. A sitting bishop made the unprecedented move of appearing before the committee to urge it to strike the retroactive language.

"Given my time in the legislature, this is going in the opposite direction of what [majority Republicans] were trying to move toward in [other] litigation," said Rep. Sandra Harwood (D., Niles), the committee's ranking Democrat and a supporter of the retroactive litigation window.

"But as more time went on, the committee seemed more torn," she said. "After that day when they listened to victims and then when the bishop couldn't give answers because they sent the new kid on the block, it made people think maybe the victims really should have the ability [to sue] if they were stonewalled all these years. Some of us felt we were stonewalled that day."

In recent years, the Republican-controlled House has been more likely to shorten time limits for lawsuits, not extend them.

The Catholic Conference of Ohio, essentially the bishops' lobbying arm, said it believes the committee is still exploring its suggestion of a civil registry, a list of those "credibly accused" of child sex abuse but who may have never admitted wrongdoing or been criminally charged.

"The registry would give those persons who were abused their day in court," said Executive Director Tim Luckhaupt.

"They would present what happened to them and let a jury decide whether these persons [they've accused] should be placed on a newly created civil registry."

The Senate, which passed the bill unanimously a year ago, may be able to take some credit for the scheduling of the House vote. A Senate committee had threatened to hold hostage several priority House-passed bills that would increase penalties for sex offenders.

Members of Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests will meet Monday for the first time with House Speaker Jon Husted (R., Kettering).

"It's great that lawmakers are looking at getting tough on crime in terms of sentencing, but 90 percent of child molesters are never criminally prosecuted, and they live and work within close proximity of children," said Claudia Vercellotti, coordinator of the Toledo SNAP chapter.

"The way to expose these dangerous child molesters is to go to the court, get access to [church] documents," she said. "And a registry would do nothing to get to those who drove the proverbial getaway car, the Catholic bishops."

Contact Jim Provance at:

jprovance@theblade.com

or 614-221-0496.



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