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Court to decide limits on filing abuse lawsuits against priests

Jan 25, 2006 | AP The power and might of the Roman Catholic Church intimidates children abused by priests, even when they become adults, so usual time limits for filing lawsuits shouldn't apply to them, an attorney for an alleged victim said Wednesday.

The Ohio Supreme Court heard arguments in Columbus in the case of a 36-year-old "John Doe" who sued the Archdiocese of Cincinnati, Archbishop Daniel Pilarczyk and the Rev. Thomas Hopp.

The church asked the court to overturn an appeals court ruling that revived the case even though it was not filed within two years of the man's 18th birthday, as the law requires.

"What the victim in this case saw was the church continuing to hold out Father Hopp as a chaste, pure individual, a representative of Christ on Earth," attorney Konrad Kircher told the court.

"Child and sexual abuse victims go though a situation of (asking themselves) 'What did I do to make this holy man do such a terrible thing to me,' and they go through the guilt and the shame. And they can't comprehend that this person may have had other victims when the church is saying, 'We're protecting children.'"

Kircher argued that the archdiocese should have known about abuse that Hopp later acknowledged. He was removed from public ministry in 2002, and was permanently banned from priestly work by the Vatican last year.

Dan Andriacco, a spokesman for the archdiocese, which spans 19 southwest Ohio counties, said the issue the court is deciding is whether lawsuit against the archdiocese meet the legal deadline.

"We're dealing with what, at core, is a very painful and dismaying reality, that has understandingly greatly disturbed the Catholic faithful," he said. "However, what was discussed in court today was a pure legal issue."

Several lawsuits by people who said they were abused as children have accused the archdiocese and Pilarczyk of negligently hiring child-abusing priests and hiding the abuse. Most cases were thrown out because they were not filed within the time limits.

In the case at hand, an appeals court in Shelby County ruled that the statute of limitations for claims against the archdiocese started running when the victim learned, about 20 years after the alleged abuse, that Hopp had been accused of abusing other children.

Mark Vander Laan, an attorney for the archdiocese, urged the Supreme Court to reject that logic. He said the clock begins when the injury occurs, not when an alleged victim feels ready to confront the abuser.

"That type of rationale seems to drive a stake in the heart of the whole notion of statutes of limitations," Vander Laan said.

Kircher said the court should consider the human factor.

"The appellants make it sound so easy" he said. "These children can barely function when they're 18 years old; they suffer from shame, humiliation, guilt, depression, substance abuse. To put a burden on them ... that they must file suit before 20 is a harsh result they don't deserve."

State lawmakers also have wrestled with the statute. The Ohio Senate unanimously approved a bill in March to extend the deadline for filing claims to 20 years after turning 18 years old. It also would allow victims to sue over alleged abuse that happened up to 35 years ago and add clergy to the list of professionals required to report suspected abuse.

The House has not acted on the bill.

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