Claudia Vercellotti commentary: Statute of limitations on sexual abuse needs a fix

“Excellent oped on OH SOLs. Claudia is a fighter for survivors.” – Professor Marci A. Hamilton

Supposedly to give child sex-abuse victims a chance to expose their perpetrators, Ohio legislators passed a unique law in 2007. It’s called a “civil registry” for those found in a civil proceeding to have molested kids. There is just one problem: It doesn’t work.

We know this because recently The Dispatch was the first news outlet in seven years to follow up on the measure. It reported that the registry has never once been utilized.

I predicted it never would be because the registry was unfunded, complicated and likely unconstitutional. I also know how child sex-abuse victims think. That’s because I am one. The “ grooming” started when I was 12; the sexual abuse ended when I left for college. For years, I had silently suffered from shame, guilt and self-destructive behavior. And I had shouldered a quiet burden. I believed — and still believe — that if I didn’t speak up and another kid got hurt by the church leader who molested me, I was somehow responsible.

In 1996, I learned the man who assaulted me was still on the diocesan payroll and was taking young girls to the same places where he abused me. Consumed with fear, I went to my bishop in Toledo and painfully spared him no graphic detail. He didn’t tell me that 12 months prior, four other victims had already reported being abused by the same church official.  I went to the police but was told that the statute of limitations had expired, and my perpetrator couldn’t be criminally charged.  Like many, I had no recourse.

In 2002, I read in the newspaper that California lawmakers had a temporarily opened up a one-year civil “window,” letting anyone molested by anyone at any time file a civil lawsuit against those who committed and concealed those crimes.

For the first time in 22 years, I felt hope. After all, if California could do it, why couldn’t Ohio? With that hope — and plenty of fear and shame — I made more than 100 trips to Columbus, logging 26,000 miles over the next five years, trying to persuade lawmakers to reform state laws to protect kids.

I was joined by hundreds of other survivors of child sexual abuse from all walks of life. We ranged in ages from 18 to 85, from college students to homemakers, educators, military professionals, firefighters, police officers, nurses, doctors, mental-health practitioners and a retired professional football player, to name a few. Eventually, we even recruited a few brave priests and nuns. In an unprecedented move, a bishop, against whom the church hierarchy now has retaliated time and time again, publicly joined us as a sexual-abuse survivor.

Prosecutors and law-enforcement officials wrote letters of support. Hundreds of concerned Ohioans testified in favor at hearings. Victims and their loved ones took leave from work and traveled hundreds of miles waiting to be heard.

In the end, the Ohio Senate unanimously passed a civil “window.” But it was gutted in the House when Republican lawmakers buckled under pressure from Catholic bishops and “compromised,” replacing the window with an unprecedented, unenforceable, unfunded, toothless civil registry.

To date, no other states have attempted a registry. But in the intervening seven years, three other states have followed California’s lead and temporarily suspended the civil statute of limitations. They’ve given victims of child sex crimes a chance in court to protect kids by exposing child predators and those employers who provided them cover. The child predators exposed in these states are a direct result of creating a civil window  because the criminal statutes had expired.

As a result, hundreds of child molesters and those employers who covered for them in Minnesota, Hawaii and Delaware have been exposed, fired, suspended and sued.  Most important, these child predators no longer have unfettered access to kids and a license to prey. Kids are safer because of it.

Shouldn’t Ohio kids be protected, too?

I’m grateful that this issue — whether to extend or eliminate Ohio’s predator-friendly statute of limitations — is gaining attention again. Isn’t it time that lawmakers fix for good what they failed to fix seven years ago?  What motivation could lawmakers possibly have that is more important than ensuring the safety of Ohio’s kids?

Claudia Vercellotti of Toledo is a leader in the Survivors’ Network of those Abused by Priests.