Saturday, December 13, 2003

Church's strategy protested


Statute of limitations stopping lawsuits, group says

By Dan Horn
The Cincinnati Enquirer

A victims' rights group demanded Friday that the Archdiocese of Cincinnati stop using a legal strategy that is intended to keep clergy abuse cases from ever going to trial.

Even as they protested outside the Hamilton County Courthouse, group members admitted the archdiocese's approach to abuse cases is working.

One by one, Hamilton County judges have thrown out lawsuits that accuse the church of failing to protect children from sexually abusive priests during the past 10, 20 or 30 years.

Church lawyers have successfully argued that the abuse allegations are so old they are barred from court by Ohio's statute of limitations, which typically requires victims to file claims within a year or two of the date the abuse occurred.

In the past two months, judges have dismissed four lawsuits involving 25 alleged victims of clergy sexual abuse. In every case, the reason given was the statute of limitations.

Those who have seen their cases tossed out of court say church officials, including Archbishop Daniel Pilarczyk, would rather focus on the statute of limitations than talk about their failure to stop abusive priests.

"The archbishop is relying on spokesmen and lawyers and legal technicalities," said Dan Frondorf, who along with dozens of others has accused the Rev. Lawrence Strittmatter of abusing him in the 1980s. "The actions of the archdiocese to date have only added insult to injury."

Frondorf was among three alleged abuse victims who protested Friday morning with leaders of the Survivors Network for those Abused by Priests (SNAP), a national advocacy group.

Although the protesters described the statute of limitations as "an archaic legal technicality," church lawyers staunchly defend their right to invoke it.

They argue that the statute has been around for decades and that it applies to every kind of civil complaint allowed under Ohio law. With the exception of murder, even criminal charges have time limits.

The logic behind the statute is that it is difficult and unfair to try a case many years after the offense occurred because memories fade, evidence disappears and witnesses move away.

"After some period of time, it becomes impossible for someone to effectively defend themselves," said Mark VanderLaan, an attorney for the archdiocese. "(The statute) provides a concept of finality."

The statute has been used around the country by other dioceses. But some dioceses, especially in states with longer statutes, have chosen to settle out of court rather than take their chances at trial.

Victims' advocates say a willingness to talk about settlement might be a better approach in the long run for the archdiocese here. They say the church may be able to win a case by citing the statute, but that doesn't mean it's the right thing to do.

"They can't have it both ways," said David Clohessy, executive director of SNAP. "They can't say, 'We care about kids and victims,' and at the same time use hardball legal tactics.

"Either you are a cold-blooded corporation dedicated to the bottom line, or you are a caring institution dedicated to kids."

Church officials say they do reach out to victims, offering to pay for counseling for those who seek it. But they also argue that they have a right and an obligation to defend themselves against allegations that may not be true.

They say the statute of limitations is just one way to do that.

The fate of the lawsuits took on greater importance last month because of a settlement between the archdiocese and Hamilton County prosecutors. The settlement resulted in the criminal conviction of the archdiocese on charges of failing to report allegations of abuse more than 20 years ago.

It also created a $3 million compensation fund for victims of abuse. A three-member panel will evaluate claims and determine how much money, if any, should be paid to each victim.

Church officials say the fund reaches out to victims, but critics say the real motive is to protect the archdiocese's legal interests.

To be eligible for compensation, alleged victims must drop any lawsuits against the church. Frondorf and other SNAP members delivered a letter to Pilarczyk on Friday, accusing him of creating the fund to force victims to abandon their lawsuits.

"It feels like you are using money as a club over our heads," the letter states. "That's simply more victimization, heaped on top of the pain we suffered from your priests."

For now, Frondorf and others who have sued the church say they are not inclined to apply for compensation from the fund.

"What we've done is offer a choice," said church spokesman Dan Andriacco. "They can seek compensation through litigation or through the compensation fund. It's up to them."

E-mail dhorn@enquirer.com




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