The Maryland Senate gave preliminary approval yesterday to a bill that would allow child- abuse victims more time to sue their perpetrators.

The bill was sparked in part by concern over the child sexual abuse scandal sweeping the Catholic Church. The church initially opposed the measure because of concerns it would be applied retroactively, opening up the church to liability for past abuse by priests.

In such states as California, lawmakers have changed civil statute-of-limitation laws to allow victims of decades-old abuse by priests to sue the church. But in Maryland, sponsors reached a compromise.

The bill gives child-abuse victims until age 25 to file a civil action, four years longer than now allowed. Proponents of the bill had wanted to give victims more time than that, arguing that abused children often take many years to recover to where they can make their accusations public. In addition, the new law could not be applied retroactively.

Legislation that would have forced priests to disclose certain child-abuse information heard in the confessional was killed in committee.

"I think it's a reasonable compromise," said Richard Dowling, lobbyist for the Maryland Catholic Conference. "The hearings on this legislation and the publicity that has come with it have pointed up the need for victims to report their abuse just as soon as they can, so that they can get help and the perpetrators can be prevented from doing more harm."

Tuition for Undocumented Immigrants

The House of Delegates gave preliminary approval yesterday to a bill that would allow undocumented immigrants living in Maryland to pay the same tuition at public colleges and universities as do legal residents.

Under the proposal, undocumented students would be eligible for in-state tuition rates if they graduated from a Maryland high school, or attended public school in Maryland for at least three years, and provide an affidavit vowing to apply for U.S. citizenship.

If approved, the measure could save immigrant students thousands of dollars annually in tuition fees. At the University of Maryland College Park, for example, Maryland residents pay $4,800 per year; out-of-state students pay just more than $14,000.

The bill, which skirts a 1996 federal law prohibiting tuition breaks for undocumented immigrants, mirrors legislation in effect in Texas, California, New York and Utah. The measure sparked heated debate on the House floor, as Republican Herb McMillan (Anne Arundel) argued that the legislation would reward "illegal aliens" and "treat them the same as legal citizens."

The bill's Democratic sponsors argued that the legislation would primarily benefit children who entered the United States years ago with their parents and deserve the same access to a college education as their classmates. "We're talking about children," Del. Victor R. Ramirez (D-Prince George's) said to applause. "We can't turn our back on them."

Hate-Crimes Protection

The House of Delegates passed legislation yesterday that expands Maryland's hate-crimes law to include attacks based on sexual orientation.

The bill, which passed 90 to 44, is aimed at bolstering protections for gay men and lesbians who are the victims of hate crimes. The legislation would allow prosecutors to seek additional prison time if the crime was motivated by the victim's sexual orientation. Prosecutors already have that ability if crimes are motivated by race, religion or national origin.

Maryland law prohibits discrimination in housing and employment because of race, religion, sexual orientation or gender. Twenty-seven other states include sexual orientation in their hate-crime statutes, said bill sponsor Del. Richard S. Madaleno Jr. (D-Montgomery ).