Correction to This Article
A March 10 Metro article about a Maryland legislative hearing on sexual abuse by clergy incorrectly said a victim testified that her abuser was a chaplain on the Howard University campus in 1950. The victim said the priest who abused her ministered to Howard students at an off-campus site.

Md. Urged to Widen Window for Sex Abuse Suits

Michelle Roberts, behind Michael Goles, weeps as her son, Thomas Roberts, testifies about sexual abuse he endured as a child.
Michelle Roberts, behind Michael Goles, weeps as her son, Thomas Roberts, testifies about sexual abuse he endured as a child. (Photos By Marvin Joseph -- The Washington Post)
By Caryle Murphy
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, March 10, 2006

Michael Goles said he had been living a "paralyzed" and "frozen" life in the mountains of New Mexico for a decade when a stranger called in December 2004 to say that he understood -- as no one else did -- the pain that the former Maryland resident felt.

The caller was Thomas Roberts, a news anchor for CNN's "Headline News" in Atlanta. He told Goles that he had been sexually abused by the same Roman Catholic priest who had molested Goles.

Yesterday, at a hushed, standing-room-only hearing in Annapolis, Roberts and Goles urged a panel of Maryland legislators to extend the time allowed for victims of child sexual abuse to file civil lawsuits against their abusers and those who employ them.

"I'm a sexual abuse survivor," said Roberts, 33, who added that he had kept his abuse a secret for almost 20 years "because I saw what happened to Michael."

Goles, 35, who lived in Belair, told the delegates that he was "ostracized from the community" after filing a lawsuit against his abuser, former priest Jerome F. Toohey Jr. , who was then chaplain of Calvert Hall College High School in Towson. The suit was dismissed because it was past the deadline then allowed by Maryland law.

Toohey, 59, was sentenced to 18 months in jail last month by a Baltimore Count Circuit judge for sexually abusing Roberts.

Under the state's current law, a victim of child sexual abuse has seven years after reaching 18 to file a civil suit against his or her abuser.

Yesterday's hearing before the House Judiciary Committee was to gather public comment on two bills that would significantly ease that restriction. One bill, sponsored by Del. Pauline A. Menes (D-Prince George's), would allow victims to file suit until age 42. Supporters say the bill is needed because victims, who prefer to call themselves survivors, typically don't report the abuse until they are in their 30s or 40s.

A second bill would open a two-year window during which victims of any age could file lawsuits.

When California allowed a one-year window in 2003, about 800 lawsuits were filed by people who said they had been sexually abused by priests or other church employees.

A handful of other states are considering such windows, including Colorado, Ohio and New York. And since the church sex abuse scandal broke in 2002, several states have extended the time for victims to file lawsuits.

In the District, civil suits must be filed by the time the victim turns 21. In Virginia, a lawsuit can be filed within two years of the victim being informed by a licensed psychologist that his or her injuries were caused by childhood sexual abuse.

Local Catholic Church officials oppose both Maryland bills.

"The bills are bad for several reasons," said Jane Belford, chancellor of the Archdiocese of Washington, who testified at the hearing. Belford noted that Maryland has no time limit on criminal charges being brought against a child abuser. "They didn't have that in California," she said.

Also, since the early 1980s, Maryland has had strict requirements for adults to report suspicions of child abuse. Belford also said that the church's own policies require it "to reach out to victims, to offer them both pastoral and therapeutic counseling."

Richard Dowling of the Maryland Catholic Conference, a group that lobbies for the church, said in an interview that "statutes of limitations are intended to protect innocent defendants as well as those who say they have been caused harm."

"And if someone is charged with inappropriate conduct that is based on an event decades old, it's very difficult [to] prepare an adequate defense" because "witnesses have moved or are dead, records are unavailable," he added.

The crowded legislative hearing room, however, was packed with supporters of the bills, including victims of clerical sexual abuse and their relatives and friends. Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, a victims advocacy group, and the Baltimore chapter of the Catholic lay organization Voice of the Faithful helped organize the witnesses and spoke in favor of the two bills.

David Clohessy, national director of the survivors network, said in an interview outside the hearing room that "there is no more effective way to prevent abuse" than a window suspending the statute of limitations. Like other supporters of this measure, Clohessy said that civil suits against abusers and their employers help protect children because they force institutions to put preventive measures in place.

"We want to do everything we can to help expose the predators . . . and to give employers a real incentive to screen employees, fingerprint volunteers and take allegations seriously," he said.

Church officials say they are already doing those things.

Of the 42 witnesses who signed up to address the panel of delegates, 38 were victims of child sexual abuse, mostly by priests, said Anne Marie Martinez of Germantown.

Martinez testified about her own sexual abuse by a priest when she was 13. At the time, the priest was a chaplain on the campus of Howard University, she said.

"It took me 55 years to come forward and talk about this," an emotional Martinez told the panel.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company