The Baltimore Banner [Baltimore MD]
March 10, 2023
By Tim Prudente
When the voting started, one senator after another said “yes,” and there were tears and sobs in the gallery.
Two survivors hugged. For years, they had come to Annapolis and bared the childhood horrors they suffered at the hands of Catholic priests, only to see their bill stall in this Senate committee.
The Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee voted overwhelmingly Friday to advance the Child Victims Act of 2023, an incremental step — the bill must clear the full Senate and House still — yet one that has frustrated survivors in three previous years.
“It’s hard to put into words. I just welled up out of nowhere,” said David Lorenz, the Maryland director of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, or SNAP. “This has always been the obstacle.”
The bill would give more survivors of child sexual abuse the legal right to sue the church and other institutions complicit in the crimes. It would also remove a longstanding legal barrier that has blocked many adults in Maryland from filing lawsuits over abuse they suffered in schools and churches.
Most survivors can’t sue past the age of 38 under current Maryland law. And yet, research shows men and women reach their 50s on average before they fully confront childhood abuse.
Sen. Chris West, a Republican from Baltimore and Carroll counties, alone voted against the bill.
“I am absolutely convinced that this bill is unconstitutional and will be so held by the Maryland Supreme Court,” he said.
Advocates and survivors fought off a last minute amendment that would have exempted some for-profit companies from liability. Senators spent about an hour hashing out the details behind closed doors before they came out to vote.
Lawmakers have debated versions of the bill for years. Many survivors say it’s not just about the money, but the opportunity to face their abusers and be heard by the courts. The process of discovering evidence for trial has served to expose abusers and those who enabled the crimes in other states.
Those legislators who opposed the bill in years past said they worry it could bring financial ruin to churches, schools and other institutions that harbored abusers. Church lobbyists with the Maryland Catholic Conference have opposed the bill because of provisions that allow different judgments against private and public institutions.
The bill would cap judgments against private institutions such as the church at $1.5 million for non-economic damages like pain and suffering. Economic damages, such as medical care and therapy, would have no limit against private institutions.
Judgments against public entities such as school boards would be capped at $890,000. That’s because of other longstanding provisions in Maryland law that limit judgments against public entities.
The Maryland Catholic Conference issued a statement after Friday’s vote to restate its opposition.
“The legislation creates blatant disparity in its treatment of victims,” the church lobbyists said.
The potential for lawsuits against school boards and other public entities could also burden taxpayers, they argued.
Early drafts of the bill gave survivors a window of three years to file lawsuits. The Senate committee advanced a version, however, with no such time limits.
“The draconian provision of an unlimited window for currently time-barred civil cases to be filed, regardless of when they occurred, is nearly unprecedented,” the church lobbyists said.
They urged members of a House committee last week to vote down the bill, arguing that unsubstantiated claims of abuse could have a devastating effect on institutions. Survivors and their advocates offered a rebuttal, saying it’s rare, if not unheard of, for someone to bring an unsubstantiated claim of child sexual abuse to the courts.
The House has twice passed versions of the legislation in years past. But survivors and advocates considered the Senate their challenge.
In past years, the legislation has run into a technical obstacle called a “statute of repose.” That provision was quietly added to a 2017 bill — many lawmakers who voted on it said they were unaware — to grant the church and other institutions immunity from lawsuits by most people older than 38. Attorneys debated whether that immunity could be taken back without running afoul of Maryland’s constitution.
Leaders in the Senate shared a letter last month from the attorney general’s office in which the state’s lawyers concluded they could defend “in good faith” a repeal of the statute of repose. The letter brought the firmest words yet that the Child Victims Act of 2023 could withstand a challenge in the courts.
That’s the likely outcome if the General Assembly passes the bill. Survivors and advocates expect a legal challenge, and the courts to ultimately settle the matter. They urged lawmakers to give them the chance to argue before the courts that the legislation should stand.
The legislation proceeds in Annapolis as a Baltimore judge is poised to release a report of more than 400 pages detailing the history of child sexual abuse within the Archdiocese of Baltimore. Investigators told the courts they looked back 80 years and identified 158 priests accused of the “sexual abuse” and “physical torture” of more than 600 victims.
In November, they asked the courts for permission to release their findings to the public. Baltimore Circuit Judge Robert Taylor Jr. wrote that he wants to release a redacted version as soon as possible.
“Any further delay in its [the report’s] release would prevent the General Assembly from considering this 469-page trove of information,” he wrote.
The judge could release the report as soon as this month. He ordered the attorneys involved to submit their recommended redactions to him by Monday.