- Victims of sexual abuse have found their toughest lobbying foe -- the Catholic church.
Lied to them.
Under the intricate gold leaf of the hearing room, beneath the oversized portraits of dead statesmen and the bank of senators peering down from a high bench, people who had never before talked in public took the microphone and described the abuse they had suffered at the hands of Catholic priests. Their families stood behind them and cried.
As the tears fell, something amazing happened up on that bench. The senators listened. Ohio law currently bars people over the age of 20 from suing someone who abused them when they were children. Senate Bill 17 raises the age to 38. It also creates a "look-back" period: For one year after the law's passage, anyone victimized after 1970 would be allowed to sue.
Most of the senators entered the room that March morning either neutral or opposed to the bill. This, after all, is the Ohio Senate, where the Republican majority has done its best to stop injured people from suing.
But as testimony wore into the evening, the audience watched as senators grew still, leaned forward, pushed tears from their eyes, and changed their minds. "It was the most amazing thing I've seen in my legislative experience," says Senator Marc Dann (D-Liberty Township). "Usually these hearings are pretty perfunctory, and the decisions are made beforehand in a back room. But this time, you could tell it was real."
"I didn't have a firm opinion going into it," says Senator Patricia Clancy (R-Cincinnati). "But when you sat there and heard this testimony, it all became crystal clear for me."
The Civil Justice Committee unanimously passed the bill on March 16. That same day, in a rare feat, the entire Senate approved it.
But that was more than a month ago. The bill now languishes in the House, where Speaker Jon Husted has yet to assign it to a committee. "That's a sign that it's not going real well," Dann says.
The reason: intense lobbying by the Catholic church.
Following the death of Pope John Paul II and the glowing coverage it received, the church is once again turning away from its parishioners to protect its pedophiles. Priests and nuns from around the state are organizing a major lobbying push against the bill, legislators say. One of the loudest voices is that of Cleveland Bishop Anthony Pilla, who recently met with legislators in Columbus. (Diocese officials refuse to discuss the lobbying efforts.)
But if those same priests preach love at Sunday mass, they appear to be saving their greatest devotion for preserving the church's bank accounts.
Father Robert Hill worked at a Catholic high school in Ashtabula County when he was caught paying a child for sex. He was convicted in 1992 and served time in prison. Ten years later, he reemerged at a retirement home for priests -- housed in the same building as a preschool. The situation came to light only after the Youngstown diocese received approval from Ohio's Department of Job and Family Services to house Hill near the school.
Three weeks ago, Dann paid Hill a visit. The preschool sits in his neighborhood. He found the priest unrepentant. "I asked him how he thought his victim was doing," says Dann. "He said, 'I would have no idea.'"
Dann also talked to the nuns who ran the school. They knew about Father Hill's criminal record, they said, but they assured the senator that they're careful to keep him away from the children. Then the nuns asked Dann if he thought they should inform the preschool students' parents.
"I can tell you, my parents would have liked to know that one of the priests at my school had a history of sexual abuse," says Barbara Blaine, founder of SNAP (Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests), who was molested by a Toledo priest during her childhood. "Had they known, I would not have been allowed to go to the rectory after school and play with the priest."
SNAP members have heard rumors that Hill molested other children, Blaine says. But under current Ohio law, there's little they can do. Victims have only until their 20th birthday to file charges. For most people, that's not enough time.
"We've heard so much testimony from victims and from medical experts that it's not possible for most people to come forward at the age of 20," says Tim Luckhaupt, executive director of the Catholic Conference of Ohio, the church's lobbying arm. "It takes them farther into their adult life to be able to talk about these things."
Church leaders have no problem extending the statute of limitations for all future abuses, Luckhaupt says. But that's little comfort to anyone else who might have been injured by Father Hill more than a decade ago.
"The church says they've removed all the perpetrators," Blaine says. "If they removed them all, how is Robert Hill allowed to say mass?"
It also does nothing about the 145 Cuyahoga County priests who prosecutor Bill Mason believes have abused children. Mason managed to bring indictments against one priest and six employees of the diocese. But the rest escaped prosecution, because the statute of limitations had run out. "The problem is, there's a big pool of abusers out there that we can't get to," says Christy Miller, leader of SNAP in Cincinnati.
The one-year grace period for old cases could help prevent future abuse. If found guilty in a civil trial, pedophiles would have a harder time getting jobs where they'd be working with children. "So when this perpetrator shows up at a school or youth counseling center, the boss can run a background check and say, 'Wait. We can't employ you here,'" Miller says.
But it's the opening of old cases that has the church running scared. It argues that the rule is unconstitutional. When he's lobbying, however, Luckhaupt spends most of his time arguing that U.S. bishops have reformed the church. In Cleveland, it has trained 50,000 employees and volunteers how to recognize signs of child abuse, Luckhaupt says. It has offered financial settlements to victims and paid for counseling, created a board of investigators to track down allegations, and posted an internet list of priests suspended after being found guilty.
"I don't think the average person understands or knows everything the church has done to work with those persons who have been abused," Luckhaupt says. "To the best of our ability, these things will never happen again."
History suggests otherwise. In 2003, Cincinnati Archbishop Daniel Pilarczyk pleaded guilty to five counts of failing to report sexual abuse. Last summer, the Toledo diocese responded to a subpoena by handing over just three pages of documents regarding Reverend Gerald Robinson, who was being investigated for sexual abuse and murder. Prosecutors believed the diocese was withholding evidence. A subsequent raid found another 148 documents the church had hidden.
And two months ago, Feliciano Santiago, the former attorney for the Cleveland diocese, went public with allegations that someone broke into his office and stole files containing names of perpetrators. Santiago's valuable computer was left untouched. "A drug addict doesn't break into your office and steal paper," says Claudia Vercellotti, a sex-abuse victim and SNAP member from Toledo. "That's what a person who wants to conceal crimes does."
Since they don't trust the church, many survivors believe that changing state law is their only hope for justice. "We're not asking for anyone to relax the rules of evidence or make the burden of proof easier," Blaine says. "Just let us have the chance to bring the case."
Instead, the church is using its muscle to keep Senate Bill 17 bottled up. Senators Dann and Teresa Fedor (D-Toledo) believe that church pressure has kept Husted from assigning the bill to a House committee. And they worry that he'll eventually give it to the Civil and Commercial Law Committee, where chairman Bill Seitz (R-Cincinnati) has announced his opposition.
Moreover, the Cincinnati diocese tapped a retired partner in Seitz's law firm, Robert Stachler, to chair its tribunal on sex abuse. "I believe there's a conflict of interest for Representative Seitz to hear this bill," says Fedor.
The church defends its decision to lobby against Senate Bill 17. "We're citizens, and we have a right to express our opinions about legislation like anyone else," Luckhaupt says.
But victims -- and their new friends in the Senate -- think the Catholic church is trying to defend the indefensible. "I think they should walk off the field and allow this bill to be heard," Fedor says. "They're protecting the institution over children, and I can't tell you how sick that is."