Report of abuses at Gilman School underscores need to give survivors more time to sue, supporters say

Baltimore Sun [Baltimore MD]

March 16, 2021

By Phil Davis

A recent investigation alleging two then-employees at Gilman School sexually assaulted boys over several decades is the latest example of why Maryland needs to remove age limits for survivors to file lawsuits, some state legislators and advocates say.

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.

Neither Offutt nor Meloy was prosecuted, according to the report and Maryland court records. Meloy died in 2015. Offutt did not respond to multiple requests for comment from The Baltimore Sun.

Gilman is the most recent Maryland institution to conclude that some of its staff sexually abused children in its care. In 2019, the Baltimore law firm Kramon & Graham found that 10 adults in authority positions at Annapolis’ private Key School engaged in sexual misconduct or inappropriate relationships with students from the 1970s through the 1990s.

The Gilman report also found that school officials did not alert community members or fully investigate claims when they were originally brought to school officials’ attention. They did bring allegations against Meloy to Baltimore County State’s Attorney Scott Shellenberger in 2008, but he said he did not have enough evidence to prosecute Meloy. The school announced Meloy’s departure as if it were a retirement.

The report comes as state senators are debating a bill that would eliminate the statute of limitations for filing lawsuits against alleged abusers and institutions. It also would provide help to people blocked from suing under current state law — which requires people to file a lawsuit by age 38 — by giving them until Oct. 1, 2023, to file lawsuits against their alleged abusers regardless of their age.

Advocates for the bill are staging a Justice for Survivors vigil at 10 a.m. Wednesday at Lawyers Mall in Annapolis.

Kathryn Robb, a legislative advocate with Child USAdvocacy and a survivor of child sexual abuse, said studies have shown that a child’s hippocampus — the part of the brain thought to be the center of emotion and memory — gets damaged during periods of high stress caused by a traumatic event like sexual abuse. She said it contributes to why victims may take decades to come to terms with what happened, as she herself did not speak about her abuse until she was in her mid-40s.

“What we’re understanding through the data and the research is that this has a profound effect on kids,” Robb said.

With accusations of child sex abuse against Offutt and Meloy dating back several decades, the legislation could give some of the at least 20 alleged survivors outlined in the report an opportunity to sue the school or Offutt.

Del. C.T. Wilson, a Democrat and abuse survivor who represents Southern Maryland, said the Gilman case shows why survivors need to be given more time to sue their alleged abusers.

“Even in this situation, it’s important because we don’t know how many predators [the bill’s passage] will expose,” Wilson said. “That window allows us to expose all of these individuals.”

Wilson said the Gilman allegations highlight the need for the Senate bill to proceed, adding that it will take the average person until they’re in their 50s to come to terms with childhood abuse and try to be comfortable enough to address their abuser.

“I didn’t even realize what was done to me was wrong until I was in my mid-20s,” Wilson said.

However, he was not optimistic about the chances of the bill passing, saying, “I don’t trust politicians, so I don’t have a lot of faith.”

A spokeswoman for Gilman declined to comment on the legislation.

Gilman officials have said they’ve taken steps to prevent similar abuse from happening in the future, outlined in a document titled “Guarding Against Sexual Abuse: Action Plan.” In it, the school writes that officials will do “thorough vetting of candidates for employment” and that employees will partake in “continued annual training on the recognition and reporting of suspected abuse.”

In addition, the school said it has set aside money to pay for counseling for survivors. Headmaster Henry P.A. Smyth apologized to the survivors in a January letter obtained by The Sun.

“The actions of these former faculty members are abhorrent and strike at the very core of the trust between students and teachers that is fundamental to a Gilman education,” Smyth wrote. “We are committed to doing everything we can to make sure that no boy experiences what you and others did.”

Sen. Shelly Hettleman, a Baltimore County Democrat and sponsor of the bill to expand time limits for filing, said the fact there was no criminal prosecution in the Gilman case highlights why civil litigation can sometimes be the only recourse for survivors.

She added that the school’s decision at the time not to publicize the allegations to the greater Gilman community “could have kept other victims from coming forward.”

“In a perfect world, an institution would find out about this and share the information with the community to see if there were more survivors,” she said.

Robb, the legislative advocate, pushed back against criticism that the bill could lead to private institutions being sued into bankruptcy.

Last month, former Baltimore County Sen. Bobby Zirkin testified against the bill on behalf of the Maryland Catholic Conference in front of the Judicial Proceedings Committee.

He argued that private institutions would not be granted the same protections under sovereign immunity that public institutions are afforded, which limits how much plaintiffs can be awarded in damages, and that the bill could subject private institutions to paying millions of dollars for incidents that took place decades ago.

Robb said that 17 states have passed similar legislation over the past two decades and none have seen a significant private institution forced into bankruptcy.

“The notions of civil justice outweigh it,” she added. “We must shine the light of truth on this so people can heal and kids can be safe.”