Lawyers seek Catholic abuse survivors as Maryland lawmakers consider statute of limitations bill

Baltimore Sun [Baltimore MD]

December 19, 2022

By Lee O. Sanderlin

group of attorneys is gearing up the search for people who were sexually abused as children by Catholic priests in Maryland in preparation for a series of potential lawsuits.

Lawyers Robert Jenner, Barbara Hart, Beth Graham and Suzanne Sangree, who work at different firms, have started taking consultations with Catholic abuse victims to be ready if the Maryland General Assembly passes a law in 2023 lifting the statute of limitations on lawsuits in childhood sexual abuse cases.

“From simply listening to your story without judgment [to] assistance navigating the complexities of compensation programs and statutes of limitations, we are ready to help Baltimore clergy abuse survivors find justice and healing,” reads a landing page for abuse victims on Jenner’s website.

Maryland law gives victims until their 38th birthday to sue their abusers and an abuser’s employer, but a bill filed in the House of Delegates would repeal that statute of limitations and give survivors two years from the law’s passage to file lawsuits.

Despite passing the House three times in previous legislative sessions, the bill has never passed the Senate. But a key senator, Will Smith, told The Baltimore Sun this month that he will support the legislation ahead of the 2023 session that begins Jan. 11.

“I am supportive of the measures that have been put forth and am looking for a path forward for it,” Smith said.

The attorneys already represent a group of survivors and the Maryland chapter of the Survivors Network for those Abused by Priests in a legal fight seeking to make public an attorney general’s report investigating eight decades of sexual abuse and torture committed by 158 priests, other clergy and laypeople within the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Baltimore.

The report is not public because it relies on grand jury materials, which are secret under Maryland law and can only be released with a judge’s permission.

The court proceedings in the matter are sealed, with Baltimore Circuit Judge Anthony Vittoria issuing a wide-ranging gag order for the case following a legal filing by an anonymous group of people who are named in the report but not accused of abuse. They requested complete secrecy around the proceedings. The Sun previously reported that the Baltimore archdiocese is paying, at least in part, for that group’s attorneys.

The attorney general’s office said there were more than 600 victims of abuse at churches and schools. Boys and girls were abused, with ages ranging from preschoolers to young adults. Two have died by suicide, the report found. One victim was so traumatized, he suffered facial paralysis.

Jenner, in an interview with The Sun, declined to give a number of how many clients or would-be clients have reached out, saying that he did not want to grandstand. Hart, his co-counsel in the archdiocese report filing, said they have received some calls, but that the phone is “not ringing off the hook.”

“I think people are very interested in the legislation, but it’s not like my phone is now ringing with survivors who live in Maryland,” Hart, who is based in Delaware, said. “I’m not saying there aren’t many, many survivors in Maryland, and we do want to be a resource, but that’s not what we’re experiencing now.”

Randolph Rice, a plaintiff’s attorney unaffiliated with Jenner and Hart’s group, said in an email that while he had been advertising for clients in relation to the Catholic abuse report, he has had to turn them away because of the statute of limitations.

While Hart and Jenner said they have cautioned prospective clients about the current law, both said many abuse survivors they’ve spoken to are guarded about the prospect of suing. They don’t want to misplace hope in lawmakers only to see the bill fail for a fourth time.

“This is a group that’s been so abused, not only physically in the beginning, but mentally again and again over the decades,” Jenner said. “It’s not surprising so many have committed suicide or turned to drugs and alcohol or have been hospitalized for mental disorders.”

Many survivors have aged out eligibility to file a lawsuit without ever reckoning with what happened to them because they repressed their memories about the abuse as a coping mechanism, Jenner said.

If a bill does pass, it would have to be carefully crafted to withstand any potential legal challenges from either the Catholic Church or other parties who could be forced to pay settlements. Hart said any legislation would have to ensure people can hold institutions accountable, not just the person who abused them, because in many cases the abusers are now either dead or elderly.

“It’s just pivotal that the legislation be framed in order to try and hold the institution accountable for giving these pedophiles access to children in unchecked ways, allegedly,” she said.

Should the legislation, previously known as the Hidden Predator Act, come to pass, the size of potential settlements could be significant. In Delaware, the Diocese of Wilmington declared bankruptcy and later agreed to pay $77 million to settle all potential claims against it.

Earlier this year, the Diocese of Camden, New Jersey, also in bankruptcy, agreed to pay $87.5 million to about 300 victims who sued the church following state lawmakers’ 2019 decision to extend the civil statute of limitations.

n comparison, the Archdiocese of Baltimore has paid out more than $13.2 million to 301 victims, with the figure including money for counseling, as well as direct payments, according to figures provided by a church spokesman.

Put another way, Baltimore survivors have been paid an average of $43,853 per claim, compared to roughly $300,000 per person in New Jersey.

While the focus is on their clients, plaintiffs’ attorneys do stand to benefit financially should they amass enough clients. Jenner said each client reaches their own agreement with counsel, but noted if the Baltimore archdiocese were to declare bankruptcy, any settlement and subsequent attorney fees would be approved by a bankruptcy judge.

Hart said the proceedings, especially when settled in bankruptcy court, are not especially lucrative for the attorneys and serve as a way for institutions to avoid paying even higher settlement had all the cases gone to trial.

“Sometimes I think bankruptcy is a way of avoiding actual financial accountability,” she said.

Baltimore Sun reporter Jean Marbella contributed to this article.