OSU denies it was fighting sex-abuse victims’ ability to sue

University quietly worked to kill a bill that would have expanded it

By: - April 15, 2022 3:55 am

The Ohio State University’s St. John Arena. Photo from Google Maps

After this story was published, Ohio State on Friday announced additional settlements with survivors of sexual abuse. The story has been updated with that information.

In 2019, top Ohio State officials quietly worked to kill a bill that would have waived the statute of limitations for sexual-abuse victims to sue the school, an investigation by the OSU paper The Lantern revealed last week.

An independent investigation commissioned by the university had already found that during his 20-year tenure, university physician Richard Strauss abused at least 177 students between the 1970s and the 1990s. At the same time, a federal judge wrote, the university “turned a blind eye to Strauss’s exploitation.” 

But in the wake of the blockbuster Lantern report, the university’s spokesman maintains that in trying to block a bill that would have eliminated the statute of limitations, it wasn’t fighting the ability of Strauss’s victims to sue the university.

“This is factually inaccurate,” the spokesman, Ben Johnson, said in an email earlier this week. “When (the bill waiving the statute of limitations) was introduced, there were already numerous pending lawsuits, and the university was actively engaged in mediation pursuant to those lawsuits.”

But that claim seems questionable. 

The university had paid nearly $57.8 million in settlements to 232 survivors. Then on Friday, it announced two more settlement agreements totaling almost $2 million with an “anticipated” 57 additional survivors.

But about 400 have sued the university since 2018, claiming it failed to protect them from Strauss. And last year some of the biggest suits were dismissed — because the bill Ohio State fought against didn’t pass and the two-year statute of limitations remains in place.

“From 1979 to 2018, Ohio State utterly failed these victims,” U.S. District Judge Michael Watson said in his ruling. “Plaintiffs beseech this Court to hold Ohio State accountable, but today, the legal system also fails Plaintiffs.”

In other words, the judge believed the legal system Ohio State worked to keep in place failed Strauss’s survivors. But in OSU’s telling, it “has been committed to supporting survivors.”

The investigative report commissioned by the university describes scores of witness accounts from former student athletes of Strauss performing unnecessary, “excessive” genital exams while he was at OSU from 1978 to 1998. Eighty-four students — including members of the men’s wrestling and soccer teams — said that unlike any other university doctors, Strauss also would take lengthy showers in Larkins Hall after their practices, doing things that made them uncomfortable.

The report also provided lurid accounts of locker-room activities involving Strauss and others. It said “that peepholes were routinely found in bathroom stalls or in the walls that allowed for voyeurs to surreptitiously watch the athletes shower. Students described steps they took to avoid unwanted attention, including showering in their shorts or avoiding the area entirely (e.g., not showering until they got home to their apartment or dorm room).”

But Ohio State did little to address the matter. 

The report said that the university received its first complaint about Strauss’s conduct in 1979. Despite receiving many more, it didn’t undertake any disciplinary action for 17 years.

Even then, OSU only removed Strauss from the Athletics and Student Health departments. It kept him on as a tenured professor, the report commissioned by the university said.

Strauss voluntarily retired in 1998 and kept the honorific title “emeritus” until he died by suicide in 2005.

In working against an extension of students’ ability to sue the university, Johnson told The Lantern Ohio State was only trying to help Strauss’s victims and own up to its own culpability.

“Throughout the investigation, mediation and court proceedings related to Richard Strauss, Ohio State has been committed to supporting survivors, achieving a fair monetary resolution, and acknowledging both Strauss’ abuse and the university’s failure at the time to prevent it,” he told the paper.

But as of late last year, the average settlement Ohio State paid Strauss’s survivors was paltry compared to those paid by other universities experiencing similar scandals.

In addition, the Lantern investigation obtained documents showing that while OSU’s top lobbyist told a legislative committee that the university was unable to take a position on the bill extending students’ ability to sue, other officials were trying to kill it. For example, then-President Michael Drake met on Sept. 23, 2019 with then-House Speaker Larry Householder and discussed the bill.

“We would respectfully ask that no additional hearings occur on (House Bill 249) and that the bill not move out of committee as we are striving to arrive at resolution and redress with survivors in mediation,” a copy of Drake’s briefing obtained by the paper said.

Other OSU officials worked behind the scenes with a group that included the Ohio Chamber of Commerce, the Ohio Manufacturers’ Association and the Ohio State Medical Association to oppose the bill, which eventually died, documents obtained by The Lantern show.

In dismissing lawsuits last year, Judge Watson lamented that that the bill didn’t pass.

“At all times since the filing of these cases, the Ohio legislature had the power, but not the will, to change the statute of limitations for these Plaintiffs,” he wrote.

In announcing Friday’s settlements, Ohio State acknowledged that they would go to victims that were foreclosed from suing thanks to the statute of limitations that Drake and other university officials worked to keep in place.

“Survivors covered under the agreements announced today had filed lawsuits related to sexual abuse committed by Strauss too late to be eligible for mediations in federal court and the individual settlement program established by the university in May 2021,” OSU said in a statement.

It also quoted current President Kristina M. Johnson as saying, “Our deepest gratitude goes to the survivors of Strauss’ abuse for their courage in coming forward. They brought this terrible abuse to light, and the university is committed to continuing to work toward restorative justice.”

So how was the university “supporting survivors” by trying to thwart a bill that would waive the statute of limitations and allow them to sue the university? 

Ohio State spokesman Johnson again denied that the university was fighting to keep Strauss’s survivors from taking the university to court.

“You write ‘fighting against victims’ ability to sue,’ but there were already numerous active lawsuits, and Ohio State was actively engaged in the ongoing federal mediation,” he said. “The mediation and individual settlement program resulted in settlement agreements with 232 survivors totaling $57.8 million.”

In opposing an extension of the period during which survivors could sue, Ohio State could be seen as trying to limit their legal options and make them willing to settle for less. And clearly, scores who sued the university haven’t received any settlements at all.

Johnson told The Lantern that OSU kept mostly quiet about its position against HB 249 because it would “impede the mediation process.” He was asked how it would do that — other than by enhancing the leverage victims had at the negotiating table?

He didn’t answer directly.

“Again, all parties had been asked by the mediator to limit their public comments, and as the records indicate, the university did not want to take a public position that would impede the mediation’s success,” he said.

Ohio Capital Journal reporter Jake Zuckerman contributed to this story.

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Marty Schladen
Marty Schladen

Marty Schladen has been a reporter for decades, working in Indiana, Texas and other places before returning to his native Ohio to work at The Columbus Dispatch in 2017. He's won state and national journalism awards for investigations into utility regulation, public corruption, the environment, prescription drug spending and other matters.

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