Archdiocese mounts legal test of watershed Maryland Child Victims Act

Washington Post

November 15, 2023

By Erin Cox

Legal motions filed by the Archdiocese of Washington could ultimately impact hundreds of victims of child sex abuse seeking damages from long ago abuse

The Archdiocese of Washington sought to overturn Maryland’s new landmark Child Victims Actin court this week in an effort to dismiss a handful of decades-old allegations of child sex abuse.

If successful, the motion arguing that the law violates the Maryland Constitution could also dissolve a legal avenue for hundreds of other victims trying to sue any institution that harbored their attackers.

The Child Victims Act took effect Oct. 1 and eliminates all statutes of limitations for civil lawsuits regarding child sex abuse in Maryland, part of what lawmakers called a long-overdue public reckoning.

The Archdiocese of Baltimore preemptively filed for bankruptcy protection two days prior, anticipating a wave of lawsuits that it couldn’t afford to defend or pay off. The law immediately prompted multi-plaintiff lawsuits against other institutions, including the private Key School in Annapolis and a sprawling case alleging 50 victims were abused while in custody of Maryland’s juvenile detention facilities.

The Archdiocese of Washington — which includes Montgomery, Prince George’s, Charles, Calvert and St. Mary’s counties in Maryland —is the defendant in two cases, one in Montgomery County and another filed as a class-action lawsuit in Prince George’s County. In both, the archdiocese disputed the underlying allegations.

Late Monday, the archdiocese also filed motions to dismiss the cases on the grounds that the new law violates the Maryland Constitution’s provisions on due process by allowing previously barred claims to be revived.

“The Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Washington is asserting its legal defenses in the cases filed against it,” the archdiocese said in a statement.

“We remain committed, however, to our longstanding efforts to bring healing to survivors through pastoral care and other forms of assistance that are available apart from the legal process. We are also committed to maintaining our robust safe environment policies that have been in place for decades to ensure the protection of all those who are entrusted to our care,” the statement issued Wednesday said.

Lawmakers anticipated such a challenge in drafting legislation giving an unlimited window for claims of abuse, and the General Assembly included a provision that would fast-track any ruling about the law’s constitutionality to the Maryland Supreme Court.

The new law was decades in the making and followed a string of failed efforts, including some that lawyers for the archdiocese argue in court papers demonstrate the General Assembly intended to grant it immunity from decades-old allegations that are difficult to substantiate or defend.

Maryland Attorney General Anthony G. Brown (D) told the General Assembly this year that he believed the law would pass constitutional muster and, on Wednesday, vowed to defend it. The state is not a party to the lawsuit that gives rise to the constitutional challenge, but the attorney general represents all state entities, including the legislature, and can weigh in on legal cases.

“As I advised the General Assembly during the 2023 session, I can, in good faith, defend the constitutionality of the Child Victims Act, pursuant to the authorities and opportunities presented under Maryland law, and will do so,” Brown said in a statement.

The Archdiocese of Washington’s filing drew immediate criticism from victim-advocates who say that at the very least, it will delay justice for people who have spent years waiting. Victims of childhood sexual abuse, they note, often struggle to come to terms with what happened well into adulthood. For older victims, the statute of limitations expired in their 20s.

“My opinion is you have two arms of the Catholic Church putting out two different lines of defense,” said Jonathan Schochor, chairman of the law firm Schochor, Staton, Goldberg and Cardea, which is representing roughly 100 sex abuse victims filing cases in Marylandthe majority of which are against the church, he said.

“It’s a two-prong attack,” he said of the Baltimore bankruptcy efforts and the Washington constitutional challenge. He added that “they’re trying to protect admitted wrongdoers and sexual abusers.”

Church lawyers, however, argue in court papers that the law strips the archdiocese of immunity that the General Assembly granted it six years ago. The immunity — called a statute of repose and considered by some lawyers to be irrevocable — was granted in a compromise that extended the statute of limitations for child victims to sue up until they reach age 38.

The church lawyers, and even some previous assistant attorneys general, have argued that eliminating a previously granted right violates due process protections enshrined in the state constitution.

“The 2017 law thus reflected a careful balancing of interests by the legislature — a substantial extension of the limitations period for unexpired claims paired with (among other things) an air-tight guarantee that non-perpetrator defendants would never face revival of expired claims,” archdiocese lawyers said in two similar memos filed late Mondayin Montgomery and Prince George’s circuit courts.

The memos argue that even if the statute of repose did not exist, Maryland has a long tradition of not creating a new liability after a statute of limitations had expired.

“The Maryland Supreme Court ‘has consistently held that the Maryland Constitution ordinarily precludes the Legislature … from … reviving a barred cause of action, thereby violating the vested right of the defendant,’” the lawyers said in the memos, quoting Maryland case law.

Schochor, who represents plaintiffs in the Prince George’s case against the archdiocese, countered by saying statutes of repose are rare and often tied to product liability law, such as limiting a builder’s responsibility 20 years after a building is constructed.

The Child Victims Act passed by an overwhelming 175-5 vote in the General Assembly and was signed into law by Gov. Wes Moore (D) on the same day a highly anticipated report by the attorney general became public. That report detailed sexual abuse and “physical torture” by more than 150 clergy members in the Archdiocese of Baltimore from the mid-1940s to 2002. Many of those perpetrators had already been known to the public, and no criminal charges resulted from the report.

The attorney general has been subpoenaing documents and recently hired several new lawyers for an ongoing probe into old abuse allegations involving the Archdiocese of Washington. A spokesman for the attorney general declined to comment on the ongoing investigation.