Editorial: Maryland lawmakers may allow limitations on child sex abuse claims to remain. But hope for change remains

Capital Gazette [Parole MD]

March 18, 2021

nce again, Maryland lawmakers are ready to turn aside calls to eliminate the statute of limitations for child sex abuse in the state.

The leading advocate for this change has been Del. C.T. Wilson, a survivor himself who introduced the bill for the third time this year. Early in March, though, he withdrew the House proposal, citing the bill’s chances in the Senate and attacks from opponents on survivors’ stories.

“To my fellow survivors, I am not abandoning you,” he said in a statement released by his office. “Know that I see you, I hear you and I continue to stand with you. You will never be alone in this fight.”

So the focus in Annapolis for the session turned to the Senate, where Sen. Sarah Elfreth, D-Annapolis, co-sponsored legislation from Sen. Shelly Hettleman, D-Baltimore County. It’s the first time there’s been a companion bill to Wilson’s measure in the upper chamber.

Despite passionate testimony before the Judicial Proceedings Committee by David Lorenz of Bowie, a survivor of childhood sexual abuse by a Catholic priest, the issue appears to be stuck behind other priorities this year.

The committee has focused on working through the difficult subjects of police reform and juvenile justice reforms, both among the highest priorities in this year’s General Assembly session. Committee members are expected to be involved in working through differences with House legislation for most of the rest of the session.

A procedural deadline looms Monday, requiring bills to gain approval by either the House or Senate to remain viable. Each day that passes without even a committee vote makes it less likely the bill will move forward.

So, Maryland will continue to fall behind on this needed reform of the state’s legal system.

Since Wilson’s bill failed last year, the number of states that have changed the statute of limitations for civil lawsuits continues to grow. Fourteen states now have extended the statute of limitations and eight have created revival laws allowing claims previously barred by time limits: New York, the District of Columbia, Montana, New Jersey, Arizona, Vermont, Rhode Island, and North Carolina.

Advocates for this change include survivors of the shameful abuse of Key School students by instructors dating back 20 to 40 years — and covered up by the school until 2018. But they are not alone.

A recent investigation alleging two then-employees at Gilman School in Baltimore sexually assaulted boys over several decades.

A report commissioned by the school and obtained by The Baltimore Sun concluded that two staff members — Dr. Martin Meloy and Thomas Offutt — abused at least 20 students between them, with allegations against Meloy from the 1980s, 1990s and 2000s and Offutt dating to the 1950s.

Catholic bishops and for-profit insurers are a major force opposing changes in the statute of limitations in Maryland. This year, it was more than a bit disturbing to recognize the lobbyist for the church before Judicial Proceedings as none other than former committee chairman Bobby Zirkin.

The Baltimore County Democrat retired after the 2019 session, supposedly because he considered politics too divisive and driven by special interests. Apparently, he thought better of taking part as an advocate for one of those special interests.

This bill may falter this year. Once again, we predict that this will not be the end of it.

Survivors of Key School abuse like Carolyn Surrick — who joined a small protest outside the State House Wednesday — may be small in number compared with victims of abuse by the clergy or the Boy Scouts of America, yet they have the same righteous strength — born out of adversity — that propelled changes in those states.

And it is worth noting that Hettleman, the lead sponsor of the Senate measure, was appointed to take Zirkin’s place in the legislature.

Hope remains that future sessions will see the justice in this change.