Maryland Lawmakers to Weigh Whether Sexual Abuse Survivors Should Have More Time to Sue
By Pamela Wood
February 20, 2020
As he’s done countless times before, Del. C.T. Wilson will sit at a dark wooden table in an Annapolis hearing room Thursday and plead with his colleagues to give victims of child sexual abuse more time to sue their abusers and the institutions that failed to stop the abuse.
He’s hoping to make Maryland the latest state to relax restrictions on when adults can file lawsuits stemming from abuse endured as children.
He acknowledges that he’s fighting an uphill battle.
“The opposition has been across party lines,” said Wilson, a Democrat and abuse survivor who represents Southern Maryland. “It’s been Democrats, it’s been Republicans. It’s people in power, it’s people who have been in power.”
Wilson is joined in his quest by fellow survivors who feel the judicial system has left them behind.
Women who were abused by the late Rev. A. Joseph Maskell at the former Archbishop Keough High School in Baltimore, who were featured in the 2017 Netflix series “The Keepers,” will tell their stories. So will alumni from The Key School, a private school in Annapolis where officials acknowledge that teachers manipulated teenage students into sexual relationships.
“The fact it’s impossible for someone like me to have any standing in court is a travesty of justice,” said Carolyn Surrick, a Crownsville woman who was among the Key School students abused by teachers in the 1970s.
Maryland’s law was changed in 2017 to allow abuse survivors up to the age of 38 to file lawsuits, though those who are ages 25 to 38 face a more difficult burden of proof to be successful in court.
A legal provision inserted into that bill called a “statute of repose,” however, has limited the ability of survivors to file lawsuits, according to Wilson.
His proposal would eliminate the statute of limitations entirely, allowing child abuse survivors to file lawsuits at any time. It also would open a two-year window to allow anyone previously barred from filing a lawsuit to do so.
The changes are important, according to advocates, because it often takes years for those who were abused to recognize what happened and come forward. At that point, the chance to file a lawsuit to recoup damages from their abuser or the abuser’s organization might have passed.
“Somehow, we think magically sexual abuse victims are supposed to figure it out, get healthy and then file a lawsuit in this time frame we’ve prescribed,” said Vanessa Milio, director of the Baltimore-based group No More Stolen Childhoods.
In Maryland, there is no statute of limitation on criminal cases of child sexual abuse.
Survivors face significant opposition in their legislative efforts — though it’s possible that no one will show up Thursday to publicly oppose the bill.
The Catholic Church has been the most prominent opponent of this type of legislation in Maryland and elsewhere. Church leaders won’t be present at the hearing, though the Maryland Catholic Conference — the church’s lobbying arm in Annapolis — has met with lawmakers to urge them to not vote for the bill.
In a statement to The Baltimore Sun, the conference noted the church’s anti-abuse training for staff and volunteers and its voluntary settlements with abuse survivors.
The conference also said a “retroactive window” would not help survivors and would put the church’s social service programs at risk.
“We look forward to working with the General Assembly and other advocates for children to identify how we can collaborate to protect all children in Maryland and to support the brave survivors of child sexual abuse,” the statement read.
Church officials, however, have not offered any legislative proposals on the issue.
The effort in Maryland comes amid growing understanding nationally about the scope and lasting effects of child sexual abuse at the hands of priests, pastors, coaches, teachers and other adults.
In Maryland, the Key School hired a law firm to investigate allegations of abuse involving multiple teachers dating to the 1970s. The school, which did not respond to a request for comment on the legislation, created a fund to help pay for counseling for survivors.
Both the Gilman School in Baltimore and McDonogh School in Owings Mills have investigated past allegations of sexual abuse by teachers.
There’s been a wave of legislation in states across the country with the goal of enabling victims to have greater access to civil courts.
Last year, 23 states passed legislation either extending statutes of limitation, erasing them or opening windows for filing lawsuits, according to CHILD USAdvocacy, a national nonprofit. Dozens of states are considering legislation again this year.
Kathryn Rabb, CHILD USAdvocacy’s director, said it’s important to make abusers and institutions pay for the damage they caused, including covering the cost of therapy for victims. Otherwise, she said, the victims and the rest of society bears the burden.
Opponents of changes to the statutes of limitation argue a flood of lawsuits could force organizations into bankruptcy. Just this week, the Boy Scouts of America and the Catholic Diocese of Harrisburg in Pennsylvania filed for bankruptcy protection, citing abuse lawsuits among the reasons.
Wilson, the sponsor of the Maryland legislation, said if bankruptcy is the end result for organizations, then that’s due to their own actions.
“If that’s the case, God bless them, so be it,” Wilson said. “If they’re going to go bankrupt because they’ve been protecting these predators, then that’s what they deserve.”
Legislative leaders said they are concerned about child abuse and sympathetic to Wilson’s cause. But they have not committed to supporting Wilson’s legislation. Democratic Del. Luke Clippinger of Baltimore, chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, said his committee will give the bill “due consideration.”
The committee has new members and a new chairman this year, Democrat Sen. Will Smith of Montgomery County. Smith said if the bill reaches his committee, members will carefully review it. He noted that with the law being updated just a few years ago, he’s not sure what the “appetite” will be to address the issue again.
“Absolutely, we will take a hard look at it,” Smith said. “There are some serious injustices that would be rectified by this bill.”