The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Maryland Senate votes to ease path for child sex abuse victims to sue

The final vote came as Maryland’s attorney general prepares to release a four-year investigation of the Archdiocese of Baltimore, a report detailing 600 victims of clergy sexual abuse over 80 years

The Maryland State House in Annapolis. (Katherine Frey/The Washington Post)
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A previous version of this story said no new criminal charges arose from the grand jury probe. The story was revised to note that one person had been indicted on charges related to the sexual abuse of a minor, which the Maryland Attorney General’s Office in a 2022 release stated “stems from the Office's ongoing investigation into child sexual abuse associated with a school or place of worship.” The office later clarified that this charge arose from mandated reporting and not the grand jury probe. The story has been corrected.

After years of impeding similar proposals, the Maryland Senate on Thursday passed a bill erasing the time limits that once barred many child sex abuse victims from suing institutions that harbored their attackers.

Although the bill is all but certain to clear the House of Delegates and become law, lawmakers are already bracing for a court fight over whether the measure is constitutional. A complicated provision inserted into an earlier law aimed at easing the path for victims to sue as adults might have granted immunity that lawmakers can’t legally strip away.

Proponents of the bill pushed forward on principle and the hope courts will side with them because the moment’s stakes are high. Maryland’s attorney general is simultaneously preparing to release findings of a four-year grand jury probe of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Baltimore’s handling of child sex abuse complaints over the past 80 years.

“The policy question is: Are we going to afford the victims of child sex abuse and rape the opportunity to seek justice?” Sen. William C. Smith Jr. (D-Montgomery) asked his colleagues before the measure cleared a preliminary vote earlier this week.

A judge noted the legislative timing as he sided with the prosecutors who asked him to release some of the confidential grand jury materials, saying disclosure of how the church knew and handled reports of abuse was in the public’s interest.

“The only form of justice that may now be available is a public reckoning,” Baltimore City Circuit Court Judge Robert Taylor Jr. wrote last month in deciding to release a redacted version of the report.

No new criminal charges are expected to arise from the investigation. But the probe yielded a 456-page report that is only the second of its kind in the nation.

Previous court filings state that the report covers allegations for 600 victims, who ranged in age from preschool through their teens at the time of the abuse. Relying on archdiocese records subpoenaed through a grand jury investigation, investigators identify 158 priests as attackers, including 115 priests who have already been prosecuted or publicly identified by the church as “credibly accused.” It also discusses how some of complaints of abuse were handled by the church.

The church willingly cooperated with the investigation, even as it later paid for lawyers for 16 people who sought to keep pieces of the report secret.

“As we anticipate the release of the report we remain in prayerful solidarity with victim-survivors and pray the report assists in healing,” archdiocese spokesman Christian Kendzierski said in an email Wednesday.

Taylor said in a Tuesday order that the court will hold a private hearing about possibly releasing an unredacted version in the future.

The investigation injected political urgency into efforts to pass the Child Victims Act of 2023, but the reach of the proposed legislation extends far beyond the church.

The legislation would let any living victim of child sex abuse bring a lawsuit, opening the door to adjudicating abuse that could have been emotionally buried for generations.

If passed, Maryland would join 22 states that allow victims to resurrect old claims that were previously barred by statutes of limitations — a movement that is inextricably linked to public accountability after a 2002 Boston Globe series that revealed widespread clerical abuse.

While there is no statute of limitations on criminal charges of child sex abuse, Maryland bars civil lawsuits brought by adults if the victim is now older than 38. In the past, the civil statute of limitations for child sex abuse victims was even shorter, so many older people who came to terms with their trauma in middle age were barred from bringing a lawsuit that could reveal how an institution covered up or harbored abusers.

The Child Victims Act would forever erase that age threshold and would place limits on how much victims can be compensated if they win a case.

Adults abused as children in public settings such as schools or city recreation centers would have their damages capped at $890,000, while those abused in private settings such as day cares or churches would have their damages capped at $1.5 million.

Damages from public institutions were previously capped at $400,000 under an unrelated law about suing government. Though it was the subject of much debate — and objection by church advocates about parity — lawmakers kept the cap for public institutions lower than private ones because, they said, there’s a public interest in not bankrupting the government.

“If this is about healing, then why does the bill have two classes of victims based solely on where they were abused?” Susan Gibbs, spokeswoman for the Maryland Catholic Conference, the lobbying arm of the church, said in an interview.

Gibbs said the church supports eliminating all statutes of limitations for civil suits moving forward, but not letting allegations from 50 or 60 years ago end up in courts today. Of the 22 states that permit very old cases to be tried today, only three are built like Maryland’s proposal to have cases brought at any time. The rest have a limited window of a few years for such cases to be filed.

In lobbying against such retroactive suits in Maryland, the church and other organizations have cited the challenges of defending against allegations from 50 years ago when key witnesses are dead or records missing.

“The draconian provision of an unlimited window for currently time-barred civil cases to be filed, regardless of when they occurred, is nearly unprecedented among similar laws passed in other states,” the Catholic Conference said in a statement.

When Maryland gave abuse victims more time to sue, it may have also protected institutions, including the Catholic Church

It is unclear whether the bill is even constitutional because of a 2017 provision — shopped by lobbyists from the Catholic Church — that many consider to have granted immunity to the church and other institutions.

Six years ago, lawmakers raised the statute of limitations from age 25 to 38, only to discover two years later that language inserted in the law might forever bar older claims.

That so-called “statute of repose,” wiped away liability for abuse that occurred for anyone older than 38 at the time the 2017 law passed. It has raised questions on whether it is constitutional to strip away those protections after they’d been granted.

Maryland Attorney General Anthony G. Brown (D), who took office in January after the archdiocese report by his predecessor was already in the judge’s hands, wrote to lawmakers Feb. 22 to say he felt comfortable arguing in court that the legislative intent of the 2017 law was to expand access for victims, not grant immunity to institutions.

The statute of repose is most commonly used in product liability law to limit exposure of companies decades after a product went to market.

“No Maryland case is directly on point about the constitutional issue Senate Bill 686 raises,” Brown wrote, referring to the Child Victims Act in a detailed three-page letter.

The House of Delegates has previously passed more sweeping versions of the legislation in the past, only to see the bills die in the more conservative Senate. The House will take a vote in the next few weeks, before sending the bill to Gov. Wes Moore (D) for his promised signature.

“I’m cautiously optimistic,” said Del C.T. Wilson (D-Charles), the point person on the Child Victims Act who is a survivor of child sex abuse at the hands of his now-dead adoptive father.

Wilson has sponsored legislation since 2015 to let victims sue attackers and institutions that protected them, repeatedly testifying to his colleagues about the details of his trauma.

“I’m tired of talking about this. Every time I testify, it takes a while to recover. I’m still in a very dark place,” he said Wednesday, two weeks after his latest retelling. “Selfishly, I hope this is the end.”

This story has been updated to reflect the outcome of the vote.