Catholic bishop opposes suits over old abuse cases
Church officials have been lobbying against the bill since it passed in March.
COLUMBUS (AP) -- The Roman Catholic Bishop of Columbus fielded tough questions from state legislators about sexual abuse in the church and said it would be bad public policy to allow lawsuits over past abuse cases that are decades old.
Roman Catholic Church officials are fighting a bill that would allow victims of sexual abuse by priests to file lawsuits over alleged abuse that happened as early as 1970.
Columbus Bishop Frederick Campbell and other church officials testified Thursday to a House committee. Church officials have been lobbying against the bill since the Senate passed it unanimously in March.
Bishop Campbell said the bill could be unconstitutional and would not protect children in the future.
"This undermines a fundamental right to a fair defense of a case," Bishop Campbell said. "Some of the people involved may even be dead."
An advocate for the victims said the lineup of those scheduled to speak is significant for who's missing -- more Ohio bishops.
Church officials don't oppose the main part of the bill, requiring church employees to report suspected abuse. They want to remove a provision that allows alleged victims to sue over past abuse for one to two years from the bill's passage, said Timothy Luckhaupt, executive director of the Catholic Conference of Ohio.
Under current law, victims have until one year after reaching 18 to sue. The bill also would extend that limit to 20 years after age 18 for future victims.
"We think the focus of the bill is to protect children," Luckhaupt said. "You don't protect children by opening up the statute of limitations for one year."
Bishop Campbell, who also has met privately with lawmakers including House Speaker Jon Husted, has said allowing lawsuits up to 35 years later robs the accused priest of the ability to defend himself effectively.
Committee members on Thursday pressed Bishop Campbell on why the church would transfer priests instead of reporting alleged abuse for several years and also reminded him that the bill would apply to all religious groups not just the Roman Catholic Church.
Rep. Matthew Dolan, a Geauga County Republican, said, "Let's not focus on 30 years ago. We heard testimony on acts or inaction of the church as recent as four years ago. ... I'm asking you, have you moved past it?"
The bishop replied it was tragic that past church leaders ignored the law. His position is that the church could protect children by publishing names of priests or other church employees who are removed after credible abuse accusations.
Nuns, lay ministers and personnel officials from the Archdiocese of Cincinnati and Cleveland and Toledo dioceses have taken steps to protect children, Luckhaupt said. Those include counseling and financial settlements for victims, criminal background checks for employees who work with children and mandatory five-hour training that 400,000 employees and volunteers have completed before working with children.
Several dioceses also post on their Web sites the names of priests who have been removed from ministry because of abuse, he said, which helps protect the community.
Claudia Vercellotti, director of the Toledo chapter of a victims network, asked why Bishop Campbell, installed in January, was the only Ohio bishop to face the lawmakers.
Several of the 84 victims who have testified before the House had never even told their families, and some faced financial penalties for breaking gag orders in their court cases against the church, Vercellotti said.
"They were willing to go on the record, and they were willing to answer critical questions from the lawmakers," said the 36-year-old, who says she was abused for several years by a lay employee of the Toledo diocese beginning when she was about 14. "Now the bishops aren't willing to do the same."
House leadership has found no resolution on disputes over the lawsuit issue, said Scott Borgemenke, Husted's chief of staff.
The Legislature adjourned until January on Wednesday. The office of Rep. John Willamowski, a Lima Republican who heads the committee, said committee members would likely revise the Senate version of the bill in the coming weeks.