In Annapolis, bill takes shape to allow child sex abuse lawsuits against Catholic Church, schools

The Baltimore Banner [Baltimore MD]

March 2, 2023

By Tim Prudente

State lawmakers are settling on the terms of a proposal to give more survivors of child sexual abuse the opportunity to sue the Catholic Church and other institutions complicit in the crimes.

The House Judiciary Committee heard Thursday from survivors and their advocates for two hours about the need to give adults the authority to sue. For many survivors, the years pass but their trauma remains.

“You realize really soon it’s only those who are closest to you who can cause you pain. So you keep them at arm’s distance,” Del. C.T. Wilson told the committee.

The Southern Maryland Democrat sponsored the House bill and grew emotional telling lawmakers that the trauma of his own boyhood abuse won’t relent. Now, he said, it has cost him his marriage.

“It [the bill] wouldn’t undo what’s happened,” Wilson said. “It allows victims of child sexual abuse to have a voice and face their accusers.”

The Child Victims Act of 2023 would cap damages against public institutions such as school boards at $850,000 and against private and nonprofit institutions at $1.5 million. The difference comes from longstanding state law that limits judgments against public entities. Opponents to the bill have seized on the disparity.

The committee did not vote Thursday. Several delegates said they would support the bill. The legislation has passed the House in years past only to stall in the Senate.

The church lobbying arm of the Maryland Catholic Conference submitted its opposition Thursday in writing.

“While there is clearly no financial compensation that can ever rectify the harm done to a survivor of sexual abuse, the devastating impact that the retroactive window provision will potentially have by exposing public and private institutions — and the communities they serve — to unsubstantiated claims of abuse cannot be ignored,” church lobbyists wrote.

The issue became a priority in Annapolis this year after the Maryland Attorney General’s Office asked the courts for permission to release a nearly four-year investigation into the history of child sexual abuse within the Archdiocese of Baltimore.

Investigators looked back 80 years and identified 158 priests in the archdiocese accused of the “sexual abuse” and “physical torture” of more than 600 victims, according to the court records. Last week, a Baltimore judge wrote that he would release a redacted version of the report. The attorney general’s office and church have until March 13 to submit redactions to the court for review.

“Any further delay in its [the report’s] release would prevent the General Assembly from considering this 469-page trove of information,” Circuit Judge Robert Taylor Jr. wrote.

Maryland lawmakers seek to follow other states in establishing a “lookback window,” a designated period during which survivors may file lawsuits that would otherwise be too late under the statute of limitations. Maryland survivors generally can’t sue past the age of 38 for abuse they suffered as children.

“These are not typical torts. These are not a slip and fall, or breach of contract. We’re talking about the rape, sodomy and sexual assault of our children,” said Kathryn Robb, the executive director of the Philadelphia nonprofit Child USAdvocacy. “These are very different torts and should be treated accordingly.”

Research shows many survivors take years to acknowledge abuse from their childhood. On average, they’re 50 or older when they come forward.

Past efforts to pass a “lookback window” have run into a technical obstacle called a “statute of repose.” That provision was quietly added to a 2017 bill — many lawmakers who voted on that bill said they were unaware of it — to grant the church and other institutions immunity to lawsuits from anyone older than 38. That has effectively blocked legislative efforts in recent years to open a “lookback window.”

The Child Victims Act of 2023 would repeal the statute of repose. Leaders in the Senate shared a letter last week from the attorney general’s office in which lawyers concluded they could defend “in good faith” a repeal of the statute of repose. The letter brought the firmest words yet from the state’s lawyers that they could defend the repeal in court.

The stakes are high for survivors and institutions such as the Catholic Church. Dioceses elsewhere have filed for bankruptcy protection when facing the possibility of a flood of lawsuits and judgments over abuse that happened decades ago.

Survivors, meanwhile, say the chance to have their cases heard in the courts would bring closure and emotional healing in addition to any money. In other states, the discovery process of such lawsuits has exposed abusers and their enablers.