The lobbying arm of the Catholic church in Maryland is making a partial concession to legislative reforms that would help victims of priest sexual abuse sue the church decades later.
The Maryland Catholic Conference, which represents the Archdiocese of Baltimore, the Archdiocese of Washington and the Diocese of Wilmington, Del., announced Monday it will support legislation to erase the statute of limitations for future victims to sue the church. Maryland law requires men and women who are abused as children to file lawsuits by age 38 or within three years of an abuser’s criminal conviction.
The church, however, isn’t budging in its longstanding opposition to a “lookback window.” That would permit lawsuits from victims now older than 38 who are currently unable to sue. The announcement comes as the church, state lawmakers and sexual abuse survivors prepare to debate reforms around priest sexual abuse in the upcoming session of the Maryland General Assembly.
State Sen. William C. Smith Jr., who chairs the Senate’s Judicial Proceedings Committee, has been talking with advocates on all sides in hopes of finding the right solution to help survivors. He said the announcement from the Maryland Catholic Conference came up short.
”Seeking justice for victims is something we’re all interested in. I’m not sure this statement fully comports with the goal,” said Smith, a Montgomery County Democrat. He added: “There’s still so much to discuss, but this shows there’s room for dialogue.”
The House of Delegates has previously passed lawsuit reform legislation, only to see it fail in the state Senate. Del. Luke Clippinger, who chairs the House Judicial Proceedings Committee, said the church’s statement doesn’t push the negotiations closer to passing a bill that will help the many survivors who are hurting from past abuse.
”I am interested and happy to hear the Catholic Church is engaging in this piece of the legislation, but I don’t believe that this proposal gives victims of abuse more than what they already have,” said Clippinger, a Baltimore Democrat.
The legislative debate returns as a Baltimore judge considers whether to approve release of a 456-page state investigation into the history of child sexual abuse within the archdiocese. The Maryland Attorney General’s Office filed a motion last month asking the courts to approve the release of its nearly four-year investigation into priest sexual abuse.
State investigators identified 158 priests, most of them already known, within the archdiocese accused of the “sexual abuse” and “physical torture” of more than 600 victims over the past 80 years, according to the court records. Investigators told the court there are likely hundreds more victims. The investigation was conducted through a grand jury, and state law keeps grand jury materials confidential without a judge’s order.
With the judge’s decision pending, lawmakers, survivors and lobbyists are preparing to hash out new rules in Annapolis for how victims may pursue restitution for the harm they suffered.
Survivors and their advocates have pushed lawmakers for years to establish a lookback window. Many victims repress the memory of child sexual abuse well into adulthood. That’s why dozens of states have opened lookback windows or otherwise allowed survivors new opportunities to file lawsuits.
In explaining its opposition to a lookback window, the Maryland Catholic Conference cited analysis by the attorney general’s office that concluded it would be unconstitutional. But the issue is murky, and Assistant Attorney General Kathryn Rowe explored the complex legal question in three letters advising lawmakers when such changes were previously debated.
Some victims and advocates said the statement from the Maryland Catholic Conference doesn’t go far enough. .
“It’s a nothing burger,” said Baltimore attorney Joanne Suder, who has represented victims. “It does us no good to have some law on the books that starts in the future with no lookback window and that does not include corporate liability.”
Suder has advocated for a two-year lookback window. She said most priests have little money and the laws restrict attorneys from pursing the church for damages.
“Maryland, being the first archdiocese in the country, has the worst laws out there of almost anyone,” she said. “Quite frankly, I’d be OK with an 18-month lookback window and corporate responsibility, rather than some nothing burger that sounds good to the public but means nothing.”
Changes in the law would affect any victim who wants to hold an institution accountable for abuse — including churches, schools and youth organizations — but the Catholic church is the most prominent institution affected and one of the largest voices in the debate.
The church lobbying arm and other opponents have warned that expanding eligibility to file lawsuits could lead to crippling litigation. The nonprofit BishopAccountability.org found nearly 30 Catholic diocese and religious orders have filed for bankruptcy protection amid a barrage of lawsuits over priest sexual abuse. In the past five years, the Maryland Catholic Conference has spent more than $1 million on lobbying efforts in Annapolis, according to public records.
A decision whether to release the report rests with Baltimore Circuit Judge Anthony Vittoria. About two weeks ago, he ordered the proceedings sealed and barred attorneys from sharing their briefs.
Meanwhile, survivors of priest sexual abuse have sought to intervene in the case and bring out the report. The archdiocese is also paying for two lawyers, Gregg Bernstein and William Murphy, to represent some people named in the report, but not accused of sexual abuse.
An archdiocese spokesman has said these people want a chance to tell the courts what they believe to be omissions or errors in the report. He said the the church supports them in that effort.