Maryland state senator signals support for bill Catholic church lobbied against, giving hope to childhood abuse survivors

Baltimore Sun [Baltimore MD]

December 12, 2022

By Lee O. Sanderlin and Hannah Gaskill

Legislation that would give childhood victims of sexual abuse a chance to sue their abusers, regardless of when it happened, has the support of a key Maryland state senator.

Sen. Will Smith, the Democratic chair of the Judicial Proceedings Committee, told The Baltimore Sun he would support what’s previously been known as the “Hidden Predator Act,” which would create a “look-back window,” where survivors would have two years from the act becoming law to file a lawsuit regardless of when the abuse happened.

Under existing state law, childhood sexual abuse survivors have until their 38th birthday to file a lawsuit or three years after their abuser was convicted in criminal court, whichever is later.

Regularly sponsored by Del. C.T. Wilson, a Charles County Democrat who is a survivor of childhood abuse, the bill has been passed repeatedly by the House of Delegates only to die in Smith’s committee. Wilson said he has pre-filed the bill again this year for what will be his fourth attempt at pushing it through.

“He is the leader on this bill, but I’m looking forward to supporting him in his efforts,” Smith said of Wilson. “I am supportive of the measures that have been put forth and am looking for a path forward for it.”

Reached by phone, Wilson said he was happy to have the support of Smith, who represents Montgomery County, and hopes this will be the year the bill is passed.

“I’m trying to be done with this and would like to see this wrapped up so these survivors and these victims get their voices heard,” he said. “I think it would be very helpful.”

The bill is heavily supported by people who were abused by Catholic priests,many of whom are too old to be able to file lawsuits against the church, based on when their abuse happened.

Although the bill was not introduced in the 2022 legislative session, lawmakers in recent weeks are facing more public pressure from survivor groups to pass the bill with the possible release of the Office of the Maryland Attorney General’s report into sexual abuse and its cover-up in the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Baltimore going back eight decades.

The report, which cannot be released without a judge’s permission because it relies on grand jury materials, contains the names of 158 priests and other clergy who abused more than 600 people — some of whom were young enough to be in preschool at the time.

Kurt Rupprecht, a survivor who was abused by a priest when he was 9 years old, said having the Senate’s support for the bill is “tremendous.”

“Hopefully the dam breaks in the Senate like it did in the House, so if it goes to the floor you won’t want to be caught on the wrong side of it,” said Rupprecht, 52.l have forthcoming legislation,” Smith said.

David Lorenz, the director of the Maryland chapter of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, said he was “thrilled” Smith was willing to support legislation that would offer a “look-back window.”

The Maryland Catholic Conference, the church’s public policy arm for the three dioceses operating in the state, has spent more than $200,000 hiring lobbyists in recent years to prevent lawmakers from expanding the state’s statute of limitations on lawsuits arising from sexual abuse claims, a Sun review of lobbying records showed.

One of the church’s lobbyists, former Baltimore County Sen. Robert “Bobby” Zirkin, used to chair the same committee as Smith. Zirkin himself previously killed one version of the Hidden Predator Act.

The church opposes the bill, in part, because it would open it up to numerous lawsuits with no cap on the damages a plaintiff might seek. Unlike public entities, which under state law are limited to how much money can be awarded in a lawsuit against them, private institutions have no such cap.

“The church has not and will not support legislation that treats public and private institutions differently, that seeks to punish more harshly private institutions through unlimited damages,” wrote Christian Kendzierski, a spokesman for the Archdiocese of Baltimore, in a statement last week.

Smith’s committee is expected to hold a briefing on the bill sometime early on in the 2023 legislative session, which starts Jan. 11. The briefing will be the most thorough accounting yet of the bill’s merits and issues, he said.

“We can have some of those discussions out loud and I’m certain we’ll have forthcoming legislation,” Smith said.