Billboards and banner ads: Lawyers seek Maryland child sex abuse survivors for forthcoming flood of suits

Baltimore Sun [Baltimore MD]

May 1, 2023

By Alex Mann

Over the past year, calls steadily trickled in to the Rice, Murtha & Psoras law firm in Lutherville, while Maryland lawmakers considered allowing survivors of child sex abuse to sue their attackers and the institutions that enabled their torment, no matter how long ago it happened.

Seizing on the momentum of a sweeping report from the Maryland Attorney General’s Office revealing decades of child sex abuse by Catholic clergy in the state, Democratic Gov. Wes Moore signed the widely supported Child Victims Act into law April 11.

Since then, “the phones are blowing up” at the law firm, said partner Randolph Rice.

Describing conversations with survivors, Rice said they’re saying: “I raised this issue 20 years ago and nobody listened to me. Here’s the church. Here’s the pastor. Here’s the clergy member. Here are the dates. Now I can finally be heard and I can finally do something now.”

If the volume of calls to Rice’s and other firms or the number of advertisements courting potential clients are any indication, Maryland courts are due for a tidal wave of lawsuits come Oct. 1, the day the Child Victims Act takes effect.

Sex abuse claims for many decades were time-barred in Maryland. The attorney general’s report, which revealed that 156 members of the Archdiocese of Baltimore abused at least 600 children dating to the 1940s, only begins to underscore the scope of potential claims revived by the new law. It lifted the statute of limitations for any child sex abuse claims, be they at the hands of priests, teachers, relatives or anybody. Many victims likely have yet to come forward, and some firms are using an aggressive approach to attract clients, touting their legal services — and sometimes promising substantial paydays — on billboards, internet banner ads and television commercials.

Several attorneys told The Baltimore Sun they expect the first of the complaints, targeting both individual perpetrators and institutions that enabled the abuse, to be met with a swift challenge from the archdiocese or another accused institution. That’s because a provision in the law allows an early appeal likely straight to the Maryland Supreme Court.

“What we plan to do is, on Oct. 1, file a bunch of cases, just in case the Archdiocese of Baltimore gets the law changed the following year,” said Joanne Suder, a Baltimore attorney who has focused her practice on sex abuse survivors and negotiated numerous settlements on behalf of clients abused by clergy through out-of-court mediation with the archdiocese.

Swift constitutional appeal expected

While appellate courts typically examine legal issues after the trial court resolves a lawsuit, the Child Victims Act carves out an avenue for appeal in the early stages of litigation.

If the defendant — an individual abuser, a church, a school — asks for the lawsuit to be dismissed based on the argument that the new law is unconstitutional, and the “trial court says, ‘This is constitutional, the trial can go forward,’ the defendant can immediately appeal,” said Kathleen Hoke, a professor at the University of Maryland Francis King Carey School of Law who advocated for the new law. “And they will.”

The defendant’s appeal would go to the Appellate Court of Maryland but, before that court rules, the appellant can ask the Supreme Court of Maryland to take over. Legal scholars anticipate the high court will want to weigh in on what Hoke describes as a “unique, first-impression” case.

The Maryland Catholic Conference has long lobbied against the Child Victims Act, arguing that it would establish an unconstitutional law. Several attorneys said the archdiocese has deployed a sizable team of lawyers to prepare its appeal.

A spokesman for the church didn’t respond to questions.

But the attorneys say the anticipated well-funded fight means there’s extra pressure to ensure the first cases filed are strong and that the best-equipped legal teams handle them.

“There needs to be a concerted effort — on behalf of the legal community who represent survivors — to make sure we put our best foot forward with the best legal minds and brief writers and people who have experience on these very significant constitutional issues,” said Robert K. Jenner, a Maryland attorney whose firm has partnered with out-of-state lawyers who handle civil sex abuse cases.

Suder believes the case that’s appealed should be one that can lay bare the culpability of an institution that harbored an abuser, considering such circumstances inspired the law. Her first round of lawsuits will target schools and parishes.

‘You have to prove that the entity knew’

The attorney general’s report is replete with examples of the archdiocese knowing a priest was credibly accused and continuing to put them in positions to perpetuate abuse — a pattern that could serve as the foundation for a variety of negligence claims, including negligent hiring, supervision or retention, and failure to protect children, among others.

“You don’t just have to prove the abuse,” Hoke said. “You have to prove that the entity knew or should have known about the abuse.”

In addition to negligence, the lawsuits could raise personal injury claims of assault and sexual abuse against living abusers.

Rice and other attorneys who spoke to The Sun said it’s important to be transparent about the process and reasonable about expectations.

Survivors often aren’t able to recall all the details about their abuse in their first conversation with an attorney, requiring them to have to recollect the traumatic experience repeatedly.

“Because of the passage of time, there are challenges of corroboration, evidence and fading memories,” said Barbara Hart, who has worked on sexual abuse cases for the law firm Grant & Eisenhofer. “It’s a specific challenge indigenous to a circumstance where we’ve lifted the statute of limitations and now cases from the 1950s, ’60s, ‘70s are being brought.”

Hart, who along with a team of her firm’s attorneys, is partnering with Jenner’s firm to bring lawsuits in Maryland, said bringing old cases often requires a creative approach to corroborate claims, like using school records to show a decline in academic performance correlating with the period the survivor was abused.

“Facts that seem neutral or unimportant will bolster the ability to tell the specific and compelling experience of the early trauma,” Hart said. “We have clients who have found newspaper clippings that their moms kept and yearbooks that are up in the attic and have recollections of what the uniforms look like and descriptions of the abuser’s office.”

‘Hardball litigation’: Who’s up for the fight?

In addition to a legal process that could take years and the uncertainty of Maryland’s new law, survivors face unique challenges in pursuing a lawsuit.

Hart said defendant institutions are known to drag out lawsuits by stalling on document production and producing unhelpful witnesses.

In cases Hart has handled with abuse from the ‘60s or ‘70s, she said, “I’m ending up asking questions of a priest who’s been in the parish two years. It’s hardball litigation.”

The discovery process also requires exposing a survivor to a deposition, with cross-examination by opposing attorneys. The defense also may seek to speak to a survivor’s family or to subpoena their medical records.

“It’s kind of, ‘It didn’t happen. It wasn’t that bad. It didn’t really mess you up,’” Hart said of defense tactics. “That’s true whether someone was assaulted last week or if someone was assaulted in 1963.”

But the sensitivity of these cases has some lawyers concerned about advertisements pouring in from around the state and beyond.

“Representing them should be considered a privilege,” Hoke said. “I am concerned that the thought that there could be ready access to cash may be bringing out lawyers who aren’t the best to handle these cases.”

A Facebook advertisement from the Chicago-based firm Pintas & Mullins grabs attention with the title: “Maryland Clergy Sex Abuse Claims.” It says survivors may qualify for “significant financial compensation,” and links to a landing page on the firm’s website with a Maryland-specific intake form.

Pintas & Mullins just began the outreach campaign in Maryland, said Laura Mullins, but her firm represents 5,000 sexual abuse victims nationwide, and has a team trained to handle such cases. They may include lawyers from Maryland, or ask the court for permission to allow an out-of-state lawyer to file suit.

“There’s two kinds of lawyers who’ll be attracted to these cases,” Mullins said. “Hopefully, they choose the right ones.”