Moore signs Child Victims Act, making it easier for sex abuse survivors to sue

The Daily Record [Baltimore MD]

April 11, 2023

By Madeleine O'Neill

After years of emotionally wrenching testimony and the release of a damning investigation into the Archdiocese of Baltimore, a proposal that will make it easier for childhood sexual abuse survivors to sue has finally passed in Maryland.

Gov. Wes Moore, a Democrat, on Tuesday signed the Child Victims Act of 2023, which allows survivors to file retroactive lawsuits even if their claims have already expired under an existing statute of limitations.

The law also eliminates the statute of limitations for all future lawsuits based on childhood sexual abuse claims.

“There is no statute of limitations on the pain that these victims continue to feel,” Moore said. “There is no statute of limitations on the hurt that endures for decades after someone is assaulted. There is no statute of limitations on the trauma that haunts so many still to this day, and this law reflects that exact truth.”

The law is the result of years of advocacy by abuse survivors, including Del. C.T. Wilson, a Charles County Democrat who repeatedly told his story of being abused as a child as he advocated for statute of limitations reform.

“I never thought God would let me see this moment,” Wilson said as he stood alongside Moore and other legislative leaders.

A crowd of abuse survivors and their supporters cheered and applauded an emotional Wilson after the bill’s signing.

“I know tomorrow’s not going to be easy for any of us,” Wilson told the group, “but it’s a better day.”

Supporters of the Child Victims Act say that loosening the statute of limitations for these types of lawsuits is critical because abuse survivors can take years to come forward. Allowing for retroactive lawsuits will give adult survivors the chance to sue their abusers and, in some cases, the institutions that allowed the abuse to happen.

The bill has a unique and difficult legislative history.

In 2017, lawmakers passed a bill that extended the statute of limitations for civil child sexual abuse claims to 20 years after the victim reaches the age of 18. The bill also added a “statute of repose” that created a hard cutoff blocking future lawsuits based on claims that were already out of date when the 2017 bill went into effect.

Opponents to retroactive lawsuits, including the Catholic Church, argued that by passing a statute of repose, lawmakers created a “vested right” that protected institutions from out-of-date lawsuits.

Statutes of repose are rare and typically used in construction to give builders and property owners certainty about their long-term liability. Wilson and other lawmakers have said they were unaware the statute of repose had been added to the 2017 bill, and the text’s origins remain unclear.

The statute of repose stood for years as a stumbling block to future efforts to amend the statute of limitations and allow for retroactive claims. The Attorney General’s Office concluded in 2019 that a retroactive window would “most likely be found unconstitutional” — a refrain that kept the bill stuck in the Senate’s Judicial Proceedings Committee for several years.

Survivors gathered in Annapolis year after year to share devastating testimony of their abuse before legislative committees, to no avail.

This year, however, the bill gained new momentum ahead of last week’s release of a massive, four-year investigation into the history of clergy sexual abuse in the Archdiocese of Baltimore. The report found more than 600 child victims of clergy abuse spanning decades and concerted efforts by the Archdiocese to cover up or minimize the abuse.

Sen. William C. Smith Jr., a Montgomery County Democrat and the chair of the Judicial Proceedings Committee sponsored the legislation this year and shepherded it through his committee.

The Attorney General’s Office also reversed course. In a new advice letter, Maryland Attorney General Anthony Brown found the bill is “not clearly unconstitutional” and that he would be comfortable defending the proposal in court.

The Catholic church adamantly opposed the bill and is expected to challenge it.

In a statement, Maryland Catholic Conference spokeswoman Susan Gibbs said that “the concerns we raised during the legislative session remain, including questions about constitutionality and the disparate treatment between public and private organizations in Maryland.”

The law caps noneconomic damages in revived claims against private institutions at $1.5 million. The cap for claims against public institutions is $890,000, a distinction that brought attacks from opponents.

The bill that passed allows for an interlocutory appeal, which means if the law’s constitutionality is challenged, all litigation under the law would halt until an appeals court — likely the Maryland Supreme Court — has the opportunity to rule.

Brown’s letter acknowledged that it is unclear how the Supreme Court would rule on the Child Victims Act.

“While it is possible that (the bill)’s retrospective reach to time-barred actions would be found to be unconstitutional, it is not a given that would be the outcome,” Brown wrote in the letter. “It is an open question.”

The new law is somewhat unusual because it did not create a time limit for survivors to “revive” their out-of-date lawsuits. Other states that have passed similar laws often allow a “lookback window” for a set period of time, such as three years, though a few states have passed permanent revival legislation.

Kathleen Hoke, a professor at the University of Maryland Francis King Carey School of Law who spent years advocating for statute of limitations reform, noted Tuesday that Maryland placed no such restrictions on retroactive lawsuits.

“We hope Maryland is a leader in providing a permanent lookback so that folks can come to justice when their time is right and not based on some arbitrary date set in statute,” Hoke said.