Eight years ago, Bob Spada stood on the Senate floor to discuss his church sex-abuse bill and told his colleagues: “To be honest with you, I’m just a little bit sick.”
After hearing from numerous victims of sex abuse by priests and seeing about 150 cases involving accusations against leaders in the Roman Catholic Diocese of Cleveland, the North Royalton Republican struggled to tell his colleagues they should support the bill.
A year earlier, the Senate had unanimously approved a version of Spada’s bill containing a key provision: a one-year window for victims to file a lawsuit alleging child sex abuse that had occurred as long as 35 years earlier.
But the House, under then-Speaker Jon Husted and facing heavy pressure from Catholic leaders, stripped out the one-year window to file a lawsuit and replaced it with a civil registry.
Different from Ohio’s Sex Offender Notification Registry, which requires a criminal conviction, this listing gives victims the ability to place child-sex offenders on an online registry if a judge finds the offender liable in a civil judgment.
Although the law did not allow victims to sue for past abuse if the statute of limitations had run out, it did provide victims the chance to go to court and ask a judge to place abusive priests on a registry — a change that critics said would make the law extremely weak.
In the past eight years, no sex abusers have been placed on that registry.
“It doesn’t surprise me,” said Barbara Blaine, president of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP), who was among those in 2006 fighting to keep the one-year window to sue instead of the civil registry.
“It was never set up to be effective from Day One. It was a diversion to make people feel like something would come of it. The courts weren’t established to make those hearings, and there were no mandates to prosecutors. It was just a way of allowing Catholic Church officials to escape having to expose the truth of how much they knew or how little they did.”
The registry is maintained by the state attorney general’s office and remains available, said spokeswoman Jill Del Greco.
To get someone on the registry, a victim or prosecutor must convince a judge that a crime probably occurred.
John Murphy of the Ohio Prosecuting Attorneys Association said he has not heard prosecutors talk about the registry. He’s not surprised it has not been used.
“Who’s going to do that if they’re not going to get any damages?” he said. “All you do is get him on some kind of registry, which would be nice, I suppose, but I don’t know if private persons are going to go to all that trouble just for that.”
Swapping the online registry for the one-year window to sue kept the Catholic Church from facing a wave of costly lawsuits in Ohio.
Sen. Bill Seitz said no one has told him why the registry has not been used. As a House member in 2006, the Cincinnati Republican was key in developing the registry language. At the time, he said, victims wanted to ensure that abusive priests were exposed and never offended again.
“I said, ‘OK, if it’s not about the money, we will provide a vehicle for these people to be exposed and placed on a registry where they will not be in a position to reoffend,’” he said. “My guess is when the proponents said it was not about the money, it really was about the money.”
Moved by testimony from victims abused by priests, the Senate had passed Spada’s bill to include the one-year window to sue. Then-Sen. Patricia Clancy, R-Cincinnati, called it the “last shred of hope and justice that these poor victims have.”
But Catholic leaders and other church groups had more time to organize their opposition in the House. They made calls to several legislators, and Bishop Frederick Campbell of the Catholic Diocese of Columbus testified in what was thought to be the first appearance by a bishop before a legislative committee.
Opponents questioned the constitutionality of the lawsuit window and how well someone could accurately recall events from more than 30 years ago.
“Who’s kidding who?” Spada recalled. “I was threatened, and they tried to intimidate me — not the bishops specifically, but some of their lawyers and followers.”
Spada said he had previously designed a successful abuse registry for those who had exploited victims with developmental disabilities, and although he wanted the window for lawsuits by clergy-abuse victims, he hoped the new sex-offender registry also would work.
“I think some of the people pushing for that underestimated the power of these churches,” Spada said. “It’s a significant power. It’s not just Catholic churches.”
In late 2006, Hamilton County Prosecutor Joseph T. Deters attempted to place on the registry David Kelley, a Cincinnati priest and a former teacher at Elder High School accused of abusing about three dozen children. But Kelley had moved out of state and could not be registered, a Deters spokeswoman said.
Carolyn Jurkowitz, executive director of the Catholic Conference of Ohio, said she did not know why the registry has not been used.
“I know people have gone to dioceses and made their case. I can only guess, but perhaps going through those processes and feeling like they’ve gotten heard and had some relief satisfied their need to have restitution,” she said.
The bill also, for the first time, required church leaders to report the abuse of a child.
“Before, things were hidden, and no one would talk about it,” said Spada, who is now president of the National Alliance on Mental Illness in Ohio.
The bill also extended from age 20 to age 30 the period in which a victim of child sex abuse could sue. SNAP’s Blaine said she knows of a few victims who benefited from that provision.
Although many victims were “deeply demoralized” by the bill that ultimately passed, Blaine said, the hearing process gave them the chance to tell their stories, and victims were given respect in committees.
“Most never got that from the church,” she said.
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