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Issue Date:  May 5, 2006

Abuse bill passes without 'look-back'


After a heated tussle among Ohio’s Catholic bishops, advocates for survivors of clerical sex abuse and lawmakers, an amended bill passed the state legislature March 29 without the controversial “look-back” provision that would have allowed victims to sue the church for incidents dating back as far as 35 years.

Ohio Senate Bill 17 is now headed to Gov. Bob Taft, whose spokesman said he intends to sign it pending review and no obstacles from the courts.

The original SB 17 passed Ohio’s Senate unanimously in March 2005, but languished in the House Judiciary committee for a year, stalled by the look-back provision, a one-year grace period for filing civil suits covered by the statute of limitations. With current law, the statute of limitations in civil cases expires two years after the alleged victim turns 18. The new version of SB 17 extends the statute 12 years beyond majority. The original bill extended it to 20.

Bill Seitz, the Republican House majority whip, said the amended bill gives “the alleged victims greater relief than they had originally desired. In fact, they got all the relief they wanted except the right to sue for money damages on expired claims.”

Others disagree. Democratic Sen. Marc Dann reneged on his sponsorship of the bill after the House removed the look-back provision. He said the new bill has “several unconstitutional provisions. … The attorney general of the state will have a hard time defending it.” Dann singled out the “civil registry” portion of SB 17, which will allow an individual to take an alleged abuser to court to get the abuser’s name put on a public registry, even after statutes have lapsed. The measure, however, will not allow victims to sue for damages. Several critics, including Dann, say it is unclear how the provision will work in practice.

Ohio’s bishops lobbied for the civil registry as a substitute for look-back provision, which they contended was unconstitutional.

The amended bill “focuses on protecting children from sexual abuse now and in the future,” said a March 30 statement by the Catholic Conference of Ohio, the public policy arm of the state’s bishops.

Another goal of the original bill was to mandate that clergy report other clergy or church employees suspected of child abuse to civil authorities. Marci Hamilton of the Cardozo School of Law in New York said the current version of the bill includes a loophole that would allow clerics not to report other clerics if they learn of the suspected abuse in the context of a “sacred trust” relationship. While one obvious example is the confessional privilege, Hamilton said, the loophole could be applied to a wide variety of relationships where clerics could claim “spiritual adviser” privileges. Hamilton, author of God vs. the Gavel: Religion and the Rule of Law, said the church “charted a course whereby they won’t have to be held accountable by any aspect of this law.”

A spokesman for Republican House Majority leader Jon Husted said the sacred trust provision is not intended as a loophole to let the church withhold information about child molesters.

It’s unclear whether the governor will be barred from signing the bill as a result of legal action brought by leaders of the Survivors Network for those Abused by Priests, SNAP. Christy Miller and Dan Frondorf filed suit in Cincinnati seeking to invalidate the law; Claudia Vercellotti in Toledo filed a separate suit. The plaintiffs’ attorneys say Republican members of the House Judiciary committee, along with Husted and Seitz, worked on the legislation in a private meeting that violated Ohio’s “sunshine laws.” Husted’s office and Seitz have both said the lawsuits lack substance.

Bill Frogameni, a freelance writer, lives in Michigan.

National Catholic Reporter, May 5, 2006

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