After years of attempts, Maryland will expand ability to sue institutions for child sexual abuse

The Baltimore Banner [Baltimore MD]

March 31, 2023

By Pamela Wood

The Maryland House of Delegate seemed to collectively hold its breath on Friday, as a years-long, painful journey to help survivors of child sexual abuse culminated in a vote.

Green bulbs lit up on the vote board, row after row, showing delegates in support of the Child Victims Act, which is designed to enable more survivors of child sexual abuse to be able sue institutions that enabled their abusers.

“Has everyone recorded their vote?” House Speaker Adrienne A. Jones asked, and not a soul in the chamber stirred.

With 132 votes in favor and just two opposed, the bill passed and applause rang out in the marble chamber. Delegates rose and, in a show of respect, turned to Del. C.T. Wilson, a survivor of child abuse who has been on a painful and frustrating mission to help fellow survivors.

With that vote, Maryland state lawmakers ensured that they will eliminate barriers that have kept untold numbers of survivors from suing the institutions that employed or enabled their abusers.

It represents the culmination of many years of heartbreak, half-victories and devastating setbacks for those hoping to help survivors claim a tiny bit of justice for the pain they endured.

“I spent the better part of eight, nine years fighting for this bill,” Wilson, a Charles County Democrat, told his colleagues just before the vote. “But I’ve spent my entire life being chased by my demons.”

Wilson has shared publicly that he was abused by his adoptive father, a story he’s repeated year after year in support of helping survivors.

The Child Victims Act will lift all age limits and time limits for filing lawsuits related to child abuse against institutions, such as churches, schools and camps. And it undoes a legal protection called a “statute of repose” that some believe was snuck into a prior bill on lawsuits in 2017, which had the effect of insulating institutions from older legal claims.

There were concessions made in the lengthy negotiations on the bill: There will be caps on the amount of monetary damages awarded to survivors who prevail in court.

After the vote, Del. Luke Clippinger embraced Wilson in a hug. Clippinger, as chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, has presided over hearings where survivors have tearfully shared their stories. And he’s worked behind the scenes with Wilson and Senate sponsor Sen. William C. Smith Jr. to shape the bill into its current form.

“They have come and spoken to us year after year after year after year after year after year after year,” Clippinger, a Baltimore Democrat, said before the vote. “It’s up to us — right now — to take the next important step to make sure that we as a state acknowledge that these survivors are being heard and they are being heard right now.”

There remains a troubling question ahead for survivors: Whether the bill is constitutional. Some believe that stripping away the protections given to institutions under the 2017 statute of repose is unconstitutional. Ultimately it’s likely courts will decide.

Del. Nic Kipke, an Anne Arundel County Republican, said the constitutional issue gave him pause. While he wants to support abuse survivors, he questioned whether it was right to vote for a law that may be unconstitutional.

Kipke said he would vote against the bill, but when the time came and the vote board lit up, he was recorded as a “yes.”

The Maryland Senate, which has been a roadblock on this type of legislation in the past, has already approved an identical version of the bill.

Smith and others had hoped to get everyone on board with the bill, even the institutions and organizations that will now be subject to additional lawsuits for being complicit in abuse.

The most prominent organization likely to be affected by the law, the Catholic Church, remained in opposition. Shortly before the Senate’s vote, the Archdiocese of Baltimore sent a message to parishioners asking them to oppose the bill.

The Archdiocese warned that the higher damage caps for private institutions could lead to financial difficulties that would impair the church’s work in the community.

Institutions that harbored abusers — other Catholic dioceses, USA Gymnastics, Boy Scouts of America — have filed bankruptcy as a legal maneuver in the face of expensive lawsuits. Advocates say bankruptcy can result in delays and smaller settlements for survivors.

The next steps for the Child Victims Act are for each chamber to pass each other’s version of the bill before the General Assembly adjourns on April 10. That is all but assured to happen, since the versions approved by each chamber have identical language and provisions.

Once those final votes are taken, the measure will be sent to Democratic Gov. Wes Moore for consideration.

Moore, in an interview ahead of the vote, said he looks forward to seeing the details of the bill.

“It is something that I said I believe in and I look forward to signing the bill as the final version makes it to my desk,” he said.

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