IN STATE after state, the Catholic Church has fought a rearguard action to shield itself from lawsuits by adults abused as children at the hands of priests who were protected from repercussions by the church hierarchy over the course of decades. That effort has been more successful in some states than others. In Maryland, it has worked splendidly, thanks to lawmakers so inattentive that they failed to notice a provision in their own legislation proffered by slick lobbyists working for the church.
A bill enacted two years ago allowed adults who were childhood victims of sexual abuse to file lawsuits seeking restitution, and a measure of justice, until the age of 38; previously, the cutoff was age 25. That seemed like progress, although it applied prospectively, meaning only for people victimized after the law took effect on Oct. 1, 2017.
However, the bill’s own sponsors apparently failed to realize that, at the very end of the four-page bill, legalistic language would bar any further extensions — including one that might open a brief time window in the future allowing victims of any age to sue their abusers or those who protected their abusers. Now legislators in Annapolis are shocked to see that the church’s lobbyists were so effective in doing what lobbyists do: limiting risk and advancing their clients’ interests.
“I was working with [the church and its representatives] in good faith,” the bill’s sponsor, Del. C.T. Wilson (D-Charles), told The Post. “They were behind the scenes, crafting language that protects them forever.” Mr. Wilson, who was abused as a child by an adoptive father, sounds aggrieved. But how could he have failed to check the meaning of the “statute of repose” — an ironclad bar to future changes — added to legislation offered in his own name?
In fairness, it’s possible that even without the church’s fancy legal footwork, Maryland courts would disallow any such “lookback” windows that would enable victims to file suits for abuse they suffered many years or decades earlier. Courts in quite a few states prohibit retroactive changes to statutes of limitations. And though about a dozen states have enacted such measures, usually in response to the ongoing scandal involving the church, in several cases they have done so with asterisks — for example, by allowing lawsuits targeting abusers themselves but not organizations (such as the Catholic Church or the Boy Scouts of America, which has had its own similar problems) that supervised or even shielded abusers.
The attorney general’s office in Maryland has said the 2017 law, in addition to the state’s own constitution, probably means lawmakers are barred from enacting any “lookback” window for abuse victims. Undeterred, the House of Delegates in Annapolis passed just such a bill last month; the state Senate killed it.
All criminal law applies only going forward, as a matter of constitutional fairness and logic. Most civil law does as well, but some state legislatures and courts have made exceptions, as in allowing lawsuits by victims whose memory of abuse is often repressed for many years. It is, admittedly, an extraordinary remedy. It is also, however, in keeping with the extraordinary damage done to the most innocent victims imaginable.