Judge finds Maryland Child Victims Act constitutional; Catholic archdiocese to appeal

Baltimore Sun [Baltimore MD]

March 6, 2024

By Alex Mann

A Prince George’s County judge found Maryland’s Child Victims Act to be constitutional Wednesday in a case involving the Catholic Archdiocese of Washington, setting up what’s expected to be an expedited process to have the state’s highest court hear an appeal.

Circuit Judge Robin D. Gill Bright listened to arguments Wednesday morning and ruled in the afternoon, to the relief of advocates for survivors of abuse.

In a statement, the archdiocese said it would immediately appeal the finding in the class-action child sex abuse lawsuit that is the first to test the new Maryland law.

“The important constitutional principles presented in this case are not unique to the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Washington and are at issue in the cases filed against public entities, private schools, and secular and religious organizations across the state,” it said. “The archdiocese will pursue an immediate appeal of today’s decision.”

The Child Victims Act, which was enacted last spring and took effect Oct. 1, allows people who suffered sexual abuse as children to sue their abusers and the institutions that enabled their torment, no matter how much time has passed. Advocates for survivors celebrated the law as an avenue for victims to hold their abusers accountable at whatever time they were ready to do so.

Lawsuits flooded Maryland courts in October, targeting the likes of churches, schools, and youth correctional facilities for abuse allegedly perpetrated by priests, teachers, guards and others in positions of authority over children. At the same time, plaintiffs’ attorneys prepared their clients for a lengthy legal fight to test the law.

In passing the bill and overcoming years of pushback from Catholic Church lobbyists, lawmakers included a provision allowing for a mid-lawsuit appeal regarding its constitutionality. Though the appeal will go first to the intermediate Appellate Court of Maryland, legal experts anticipate the plaintiffs would ask the Supreme Court of Maryland to hear the case and for the high court to agree to take it up.

In the first known legal challenge to the act, the archdiocese argued in the Prince George’s case that the new law is unconstitutional. Similar challenges were made in at least seven other cases statewide, but the argument in Prince George’s was the first to make it into the courtroom.

Survivors of clergy abuse and their advocates attended the hearing Wednesday, breathing a collective sigh of relief when the judge declared the law they long fought for constitutional.

“It was very emotional,” said Teresa Lancaster, an Annapolis attorney who survived abuse in the Catholic Church as a child and now advocates for other victims.

“I believe it is constitutional and having a judge side with us was fantastic,” Lancaster said. “We worked so hard to get our law passed for many, many years.”

Jonathan Schochor, whose firm is representing survivors in the Prince George’s lawsuit, along with attorneys from Janet, Janet & Suggs, celebrated the ruling after court.

“Today is a great day for sexual abuse survivors in Maryland,” he said.

Attorneys for the Washington diocese centered their argument on a 2017 Maryland law that extended until age 38 the period in which survivors of child sex abuse could sue their abusers and the institutions that employed them. The church’s lawyers contend the earlier law included a provision granting defendants immunity from such claims filed after a survivor’s 38th birthday. Lawyers for the church say that provision, called a “statute of repose,” creates a “vested right” that cannot be repealed.

“Our position is that the plaintiffs’ claims were barred long ago by the statute of repose enacted in 2017,” Richard Cleary, a lawyer for the diocese, said Wednesday in court.

“Under the Child Victims Act, there’s a total abolition of the statute of repose” and a restoration of civil claims that previously were barred by the amount of time that passed, Cleary continued. “That law was unconstitutional.”

The lawsuit in Prince George’s alleges a group of men were abused as children by priests, deacons or others employed by Washington diocese, which covers five Maryland counties and is headquartered in Hyattsville. The complaint says their torment fit a pattern of abuse and coverup in the archdiocese.

Survivors’ attorneys argued the Child Victims Act is constitutional. They say the 2017 law didn’t create a statute of repose, but rather a statute of limitations, which the Maryland General Assembly has broad authority to change. Even if the law was a statute of repose, they contend, the legislature can — and has before — revoked or amended such a provision.

“(Lawmakers) are the ultimate arbiter of what public policy is in the state of Maryland and here they have made their intent clear,” said Robert S. Peck, one of the victims’ lawyers, of the child victims law.

In passing the law in 2023, Peck said, the legislature sought to remedy a “longstanding injustice.”

He cited the report released in April by the state attorney general that documented the results of a four-year investigation of decades of child sexual abuse in the Archdiocese of Baltimore. Investigators uncovered evidence of 156 clergy and other church officials having tormented more than 600 children and young adults as far back as the 1940s. Some survivors credited the report with providing momentum for lawmakers in Annapolis to push the child victims law over the finish line.

“Providing justice to those victims for their childhood experience,” Peck said in court, “is clearly something the legislature can do.”

The judge said she believed the legislature never intended to protect perpetrators of child sexual abuse.

“The interest in having a statute of repose does not apply in this case, based on the legislative history and the General Assembly’s intent,” Bright said.

Faced with the prospect of scores of lawsuits, the Baltimore diocese declared bankruptcy on the eve of the Child Victims Act taking effect. Those proceedings are expected to take years, with people who say they were abused by those affiliated with the Baltimore diocese having until May 31 to file claims in U.S. Bankruptcy Court in Baltimore.

Although attorneys from the office of Maryland Attorney General Anthony Brown did not participate in the hearing Wednesday, they previously submitted a brief in the Prince George’s lawsuit supporting the survivors’ position that the child victims law is constitutional.

“The General Assembly has broad authority to modify time restrictions for filing lawsuits, and the archdiocese cites no case in which a Maryland court has found the General Assembly to have exceeded that authority,” Brown’s office wrote. “Further, there is no basis to conclude that the General Assembly ever intended to create a ‘vested right’ for the enablers of child sex abuse to avoid civil liability for their actions.”

According to scholars, the only known statute of repose in Maryland is in the construction industry. It protects the likes of builders and architects from liability related to injuries sustained in structures they designed and built after a certain amount of time passes following completion. Under a statute of repose, the clock for lawsuits starts ticking when the building is deemed operational, rather than when a person is hurt.

Statutes of limitations, on the other hand, start counting the period a person has to file a lawsuit from the time they sustain an injury.

The judge’s ruling reverberated in the community of abuse survivors around the country. Mike McDonnell, executive director of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, touted the decision in a statement.

“Institutions and the insurance industry have long lobbied against reforms that benefit child victims, we are elated for the many victim-survivors who will finally see some level of validation and justice,” McDonnell said. “The challenge to constitutionality alone tells us that the Catholic Church continues to deny accountability. Never should we trust twice what they have shown us once.”