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Published: 6/2/2007

Process used in abuse bill is upheld

BLADE COLUMBUS BUREAU

COLUMBUS - Critics of a new law on child sexual abuse failed to prove that the Republican majority of a House committee illegally conspired behind closed doors last year to kill language that could have reopened litigation for abuse that occurred decades ago.

Franklin County Common Pleas Court Judge Pat Sheeran recently ruled that Claudia Vercellotti of Toledo and other plaintiffs failed to prove that a majority of the House Judiciary Committee worked privately to gut the portion of the bill they supported before the full House passed an alternative version.

The bill was rubber-stamped by the Senate, signed by then-Gov. Bob Taft, and became law nearly a year ago.

Judge Sheeran agreed that a majority of committee members did go into a private room near the committee's hearing room, and that the bill was discussed by at least some members.

But the plaintiffs failed to prove a committee majority participated in those discussions. Although state law permits a party caucus of an entire legislative body to meet privately to plan strategy, it provides no such opportunity for a committee majority.

"This conclusion does not mean that this court does not have real sympathy for those who suddenly have the bottom drop out of their efforts by the action of part of a legislative body," the judge wrote. "However, this court is less impressed with statements calling various legislators, aides, and committee counsel 'co-conspirators' or to claim that everyone present in Room 115, however peripherally, was acting in concert against them."

At issue is Senate Bill 17, which unanimously passed the Ohio House in March, 2005, with a provision allowing the filing of lawsuits in child sex abuse cases as long ago as 35 years, a provision largely aimed at the Catholic Church. A year later, the House committee removed that provision and substituted another creating an unprecedented civil registry to which the names of alleged offenders could be added through court order, even if the accused has never been charged with a crime.

To date, no name has been added to the list, according to Ohio Attorney General's Office.

Konrad Kircher, the Cincinnati attorney for the plaintiffs, said the decision will be appealed to the 10th District Court of Appeals in Columbus.

"I'm not real surprised," he said of the decision.

"It's difficult for us to make the case when not a single legislator who is in that room was willing to take an oath and say what went on. Every legislator who was in that room ducked for cover."

Committee Republicans had argued that they had simply congregated in Room 115 of the Statehouse to escape the huge crowd that had gathered for the committee meeting while minority Democrats caucused on the bill.

Before rendering his decision, Judge Sheeran visited the hearing room.



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