The following article was originally published in the Ohio Capital Journal and published on News5Cleveland.com under a content-sharing agreement.
In 2019, top Ohio State officials quietly worked to kill a bill that would have waived the statute of limitations for sexual-abuse victims of university physician Richard Strauss 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, Strauss abused at least 177 students. 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 has paid nearly $57.8 million in settlements to 232 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,” The Associated Press reported U.S. District Judge Michael Watson as saying 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.
However, 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.
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.