Priest sex abuse survivor dedicated to changing Ohio laws
When Chris Graham slides his tablet across the table to show lawmakers the police report detailing his rape, he sees their faces change.
That’s because in the report, there’s the account of someone who remembers seeing the perpetrator, a Catholic priest, chasing after a 14-year-old Graham and then grabbing him and trying to get him to go back into a private room at St. Joan of Arc Catholic Church in Powell.
It’s a powerful corroboration of his abuse in 1997 by the late Rev. Raymond Lavelle, Graham has found — as is the fact that the Delaware County Sheriff’s Office and the Roman Catholic Diocese of Columbus both declared the allegation credible.
Now, he’s using it to raise awareness about clergy sexual abuse of minors and the Ohio laws that keep people like him from seeking justice.
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“My goal is simple,” said Graham, now 39 and living in Westerville. “I’m going to change these laws, and I’m going to do it by befriending the right people, and I’m going to tell them my story so they know someone who’s been touched by this.”
Graham is referring to Ohio’s laws regarding victims of child sexual abuse, including statutes of limitations for reporting and damages caps.
The Ohio civil statute of limitations for victims of childhood sexual abuse is capped at age 30 and its criminal statute of limitations for victims of childhood sexual abuse is capped at age 43, with another five years granted if DNA is found within 25 years.
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And no matter what a jury grants a victim, state law dictates that they can only be awarded $250,000 in damages, what many say is barely — if even — enough to cover attorney’s fees. The state’s damages cap, put in place during tort reform in 2005, applies to personal injury cases.
The civil statute of limitations, and the fact that Graham’s abuser is dead, have kept him from being able to pursue civil or criminal charges. But he would sue the Roman Catholic Diocese of Columbus or his abuser if he could.
“The right time for justice is always now,” Graham said. “I hope Ohio gets with the times.”
Resisting change: Ohio’s statute of limitations laws restrictive
Experts have repeatedly said that Ohio’s laws regarding child sexual abuse survivors are some of the worst in the nation.
“Ohio persists in the dark ages,” said Marci Hamilton, founder and CEO of CHILD USA, a Pennsylvania think tank that works to improve laws and policy regarding child abuse.
In recent years, many states have changed their laws in order to better protect survivors of child sexual abuse.
Arkansas, Louisiana, North Carolina, New York, New Jersey, California and Nevada are among those that have passed window legislation, allowing survivors a set time period to come forward with their case, no matter how long ago it was, Hamilton said.
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But not the Buckeye State.
“Ohio is just one of those states that … is just very, very slow and has not yet done what the whole society needs,” Hamilton said.
In July, two U.S. congresswomen introduced a bill to incentivize states to eliminate civil statutes of limitations on child abuse. If passed into law, the act would make $20 million in grants available to states if they meet the bill’s reform suggestions.
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“Our justice system does not work for all survivors of child sex crimes,” one of the sponsors, Rep. Jennifer Wexton (D-Va.), said in a statement. “The trauma experienced by victims of child sexual abuse … stays with them for a lifetime, and arbitrary statutes of limitations block many from getting the justice they deserve when they are ready to bring those claims to court.”
When survivors are empowered and able to come forward with what’s happened to them, predators who are still abusing children often are identified, Hamilton said.
“The immediate impact is that the public learns very quickly about perpetrators they didn’t know were operating against their children,” Hamilton said. “It’s all about whether or not you’re going to choose the predators who are currently operating or the children.”
‘Fighting the good fight’
For more than 15 years, Ohio legislators have been introducing laws to improve the statute of limitations and monetary caps that they say discourage survivors from reporting what happened to them.
But it has been largely to no avail.
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“I have repeatedly heard that specific senators who are in charge absolutely will not allow these sorts of bills to move forward,” said state Rep. Tavia Galonski, a Democrat from Akron. With Rep. Jessica Miranda, D-Forest Park, she introduced House Bill 266 this session to eliminate the statutes of limitations for civil and criminal sex crimes.
The bill, which Galonski has introduced three other times, is in committee but has not yet had a hearing. Still, Galonski remains hopeful and persistent.
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“We’ve already agreed that murder is one that shouldn’t have any statute of limitations,” Galonski said. “And I would say to you that certainly children whose childhoods are taken away should not have a period of time after which they cannot seek redress from their crimes.”
Rep. Kristin Boggs, a Democrat from Columbus, is another lawmaker working to change Ohio’s laws. She introduced House Bill 199 to raise the cap on damages for survivors of rathree times, as she believes victims should get the money juries award them.
Ohio’s damages cap is $250,000, while most states don’t even have damages caps, according to Hamilton.
“It is mind-blowing to me that … our statutes are going to say you are not entitled to the justice that they determined was appropriate,” Boggs said.
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Advocates for reform point to insurance companies as the real reason why some lawmakers aren’t keen to make changes. Such companies worry that paying out all the claims could bankrupt them — and the diocese.
“It’s a combination of the bishops who don’t want any more stories to come forward and the insurance industry,” Hamilton said of the reasons why laws haven’t changed in Ohio. “They have been in league covering up sex abuse all these decades.”
Some lawmakers say one legislator who supports these businesses is the main barrier to reform.
“Bill Seitz is really the obstacle to this legislation,” Boggs said, adding that her Republican colleague from Green Township, near Cincinnati, has already proposed changes to the bill she introduced.
Seitz is an influential lawmaker who has been working as an elected official in the Statehouse since 2000. He serves on both the civil and criminal justice committees in the House and favors making the state more “business-friendly,” according to his website.
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Seitz said the proposed laws are nothing new, and he won’t support them as written.
Boggs’ bill, for example, would change Ohio law to allow victims to not only sue their perpetrator, but also those who employed or supervised them.
Seitz has said he won’t support it. In committee, Seitz said he wouldn’t support the bill unless his proposal of exempting employers and supervisors of abusers from litigation was used, Boggs said.
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But Boggs said doing that would deny access to justice.
“That’s where the larger economic compensation to victims comes from because the organization carries insurance to protect themselves from being liable, and that’s why insurance companies are opposed,” she said.
Setiz said if past efforts to eliminate statutes of limitations and damages caps laws had been successful, it could have “resulted in the bankruptcy of many dioceses of the Catholic church.”
“If you look at all the good the Catholic church has done through their hospitals and churches and nursing homes and charities and churches, we felt that was extreme,” Seitz said.
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Graham couldn’t disagree more.
“Saying their good works justify raping children is the slipperiest slope I’ve heard of in my life,” he said. “What else justifies raping children?”
‘The floodgates of monetary liability’
As for statutes of limitations, Seitz said labeling Ohio’s laws as being in the “dark ages” is “hyperbolic and untrue.”
“The statute of limitations for rape cases is 25 or 30 years,” he said. “That’s very long, and I don’t see how they can say what they’re saying. What it’s all about is certain people want to open the floodgates of monetary liability.”
Survivors, survivors’ groups and advocates say that it’s not about the money; they want reform and justice, especially when it comes to what has gone on within the Catholic church.
Monetary settlements are the only punishment the church is worried about, said Zach Hiner, executive director of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP).
“Church officials for decades have shifted abusers and attempted to downplay claims of abuse in order to protect their reputations and their coffers, so a monetary punishment ‘speaks the language’ of the church as far as abuse goes,” Hiner said in an email.
Hiner said most victims tell him what they want most is for no other child to experience what they have and for people to believe their story.
“They’re there to warn parents about something that happened to them,” Hiner said.
When allegations are made against a priest and found credible, the Diocese makes an announcement to its parishes, officials said in a statement. It also makes the Victims Assistance Coordinator available to alleged victims and that person “becomes an advocate for the victim, helping to promote hope and healing in different ways, such as connecting the victim with a mental health provider for treatment and support.”
Hiner believes Seitz has a “somewhat ignorant” view of what the legal system is like for sex abuse victims.
“It helps perpetuate the culture of shaming victims,” Hiner said.
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“No one comes forward with a child sexual abuse claim because they think ‘Wow, I’m going to make so much money in the courts,'” he said.
No way to seek justice
Graham discovered through psychotherapy last year that he was raped by Lavelle, who died in 2015.
The average age for adults to disclose such abuse is 52, and Hiner said that’s in part because victims suffer from shame, self-doubt and degradation.
“Some have buried the trauma so deep they don’t even remember it years later,” he said.
But, despite his memories coming back “early,” Graham’s case is outside of the statute of limitations and his abuser is dead, so he can’t pursue criminal or civil charges against the church.
Although he can’t bring a legal case, Graham still wants justice, and he intends to get it not only for himself, but for other victims of sex abuse by pushing for legal reform and raising awareness.
Graham has said he’d like to work with the Catholic church toward reform and hopes to partner with church officials, not destroy it.
“We need to get this stuff out in the open,” Graham said.
Catholics and statute of limitations reform
Years ago, Ohio had a chance to be one of the first states to reform its laws regarding sex abuse victims, Hamilton said, but then-Columbus Catholic Bishop Frederick Campbell stepped in right before the law changes were passed.
In 2006, the state legislature was about to approve a one-year window in which victims could report abuse that had happened as long as 35 years ago, Hamilton said. At the last moment, Campbell pressured Republican lawmakers not to do it and it failed, she said.
Today, when asked about statute of limitations reform, officials from the Roman Catholic Diocese of Columbus and the Catholic Conference of Ohio, a lobbying organization, released nearly identical statements saying they don’t oppose it.
The diocese said that it wasn’t alone in its opposition in 2006, which was because it would have reopened claims that previously had expired under Ohio law and because, it said, it was unconstitutional.
That hasn’t stopped many states from having such legislation, Hamilton said, including New York, which just closed a two-year window during which than 9,000 sexual abuse cases were filed.
“If you can prove beyond a reasonable doubt that you were a victim of rape, I don’t see any reason why the statute of limitations should thwart your ability to access justice,” Boggs said.
Hot potato of prosecuting child sex abuse
Graham has big goals, starting with wanting a grand jury to be called like the one convened by the 2018 Pennsylvania attorney general, which found more than 1,000 victims of sexual abuse by more than 300 priests.
“The ultimate question is: How widespread was this?” Graham said. “It is imperative that we know how widespread this was so we can find out 1) Is it still going on? and 2) How do we keep it from happening again?”
“We have to know the extent of the wound to be able to heal it,” he said.
But Ohio officials have declined to call a grand jury, saying it’s not within their jurisdiction due to Ohio’s home rule laws or that there isn’t cause for one.
Gov. Mike DeWine, who advocated in 2019 for legislators to revisit statute of limitations for sex crimes, said his office remains in discussion with legislators on the issue and hopes they will pursue reforms, according to a statement from his office.
Ron O’Brien, who concluded 24 years as Franklin County’s prosecutor in December, said for that years that there was nothing to prosecute when it came to the local diocese, as officials told him of all allegations and there hadn’t been any since 2002.
Current Prosecutor Gary Tyack, elected in November, said in an email that he hasn’t discussed the topic with the diocese.
“I will always listen carefully to any victim of any crime and do my best to ensure their trauma is not ignored,” Tyack said.
But some feel like not only is the trauma of survivors being ignored, but children are, too.
“I think a good society starts with keeping children safe,” Graham said. “And they have not been. And we don’t know to what degree.”
SNAP (Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests) will talk to victims confidentially. The group can be reached via SNAPNetwork.org, or locally at 614-653-1502 or SNAPCentralOhio@gmail.com.
Anyone who might have experienced sexual abuse by those associated with the Catholic church is encouraged by the Diocese of Columbus to contact law enforcement and the diocesan Victims’ Assistance Coordinator at 614-241-2568, or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Find more coverage of clergy sex abuse in Columbus here and at Dispatch.com.