Child sexual abuse survivors, advocates hope new report on Catholic Church’s failings will spur action in Annapolis

Published on: November 22, 2022 at 6:00 am EST

Updated on: November 22, 2022 at 9:38 am EST

For years, survivors of child sexual abuse — at the hands of priests, teachers, relatives and other trusted adults — have fought for more access to Maryland’s court system to hold perpetrators and their enablers accountable.

The process has moved in fits and starts, with the last partial progress coming in 2017. Survivors and their allies are hopeful that a new report documenting decades of abuse within the Catholic Church in the Baltimore area will spur lawmakers to heed their calls for reform.

“It’s a shame Maryland hasn’t done right by these victims,” said state Del. C.T. Wilson, a Democrat from southern Maryland who has been pushing for lawsuit reform for nearly a decade.

Wilson has repeatedly appeared before his fellow state lawmakers in Annapolis, sharing his story of being abused as a child in hopes of persuading them to adopt reforms.

In 2017, he succeeded in increasing the amount of time survivors have to file lawsuits. Since then, Wilson has proposed eliminating time limits entirely for future suits, legislation that has passed the House of Delegates multiple times, but not the state Senate.

Wilson hopes a confluence of factors will lead to passage of his bill, the Hidden Predator Act, in the General Assembly session that begins in January: The General Assembly will have newly elected members, Congress recently passed a law lifting limits on filing lawsuits in federal court, and now there are new revelations from the state attorney general about the scope of abuse in the Archdiocese of Baltimore, Wilson said.

“Although it’s going to be difficult for me and the survivors to testify — it’s challenging and difficult and it takes a lot out of people — it’s worth rekindling the fight,” he said.

In recent months, the chair of the Senate committee where the legislation has previously died has been in talks with advocates who are pushing for changes. A public briefing is already scheduled for early in the 90-day legislative session in 2023.

“We look to take it very seriously,” said Sen. William C. Smith Jr., a Montgomery County Democrat who chairs the Senate’s Judicial Proceedings Committee. “I’m confident that we will be able to address this issue.”

Smith would not predict exactly what types of reforms would be passed in 2023.

Gov.-elect Wes Moore, a Democrat who will take office in January, offered general concern about child sexual abuse, but no specifics, in a statement provided in response to questions.

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“We have to be doing more to protect victims of child abuse, and to hold perpetrators accountable,” Moore said in the statement. “Our administration looks forward to partnering with the legislature and other advocates to do everything we can to put future protections in place and to increase accountability throughout the state.”

The changes sought by survivors and advocates focus on the rules for filing civil lawsuits against abusers and those who employed or supervised them.

The matter is complicated by the fact that many victims of child abuse don’t come forward until years — or decades — after the abuse. Some stay silent out of shame or fear, while others don’t fully grasp that they were abused until later in life, advocates say.

Criminal cases can be difficult to prove when there’s no physical evidence and witnesses have died or have poor memory. Maryland has no statute of limitations on certain serious crimes, including rape and child sexual abuse.

Civil lawsuits, with their lower burden of proof, provide another opportunity for survivors to seek justice.

For civil lawsuits in Maryland related to child sexual abuse, the law was changed in 2017 to allow a person who was abused as a child to file a lawsuit until the age of 38 or within three years of the perpetrator being convicted in criminal court. The previous limit was age 25.

When a child abuse victim is aged 25 to 38, he or she must prove gross negligence in order to win a lawsuit against a person or institution that employed or supervised the abuser.

But the 2017 law also included a legal provision called a “statute of repose” that some experts say further protects churches and institutions from lawsuits. Wilson, who sponsored the 2017 law, has said the provision was slipped into the bill without his knowledge.

Lawmakers have been unsuccessful in getting further changes since 2017, including removing the statute of repose, eliminating the age limit, and creating a “lookback window” that would allow survivors who previously weren’t allowed to sue to do so.

Dozens of states have opened lookback windows or otherwise allowed survivors new opportunities to file lawsuits.

Sen. Shelly Hettleman cosponsored Wilson’s bill the last time it was considered in 2021. She said the attorney general’s 456-page report, which identified more than 150 priests who have been credibly accused of abuse and estimated there have been more than 600 victims, is a sobering reminder of the pervasiveness of child sexual abuse.

The report documents 80 years of child sexual abuse and the Archdiocese of Baltimore’s response — or lack of response — to the abuse, according to a court filing from Attorney General Brian Frosh that seeks approval to release the report.

“This report will be a good impetus for bringing to my colleagues’ attention how important it is and how many people have been affected,” said Hettleman, a Baltimore County Democrat. “How many lives have been affected by abuse, and how many institutions have been involved in dealing with the issue and frankly not dealing with the issue.”

Each year, one of the leading opponents of Wilson’s bill has been the Catholic Church, through its lobbying arm, the Maryland Catholic Conference. The church and other opponents have warned that expanding eligibility to file lawsuits could lead to a flood of financially crippling litigation.

Teresa Lancaster, an attorney who has spoken of being abused decades ago by the Rev. A. Joseph Maskell at the now-shuttered Archbishop Keough School in Baltimore, criticized the church’s lobbying against the changes. (Multiple people have accused Maskell, now dead, of sexual abuse).

“If the Church wants to prove that they are really on the right side, they will stop paying lobbyists,” she said.

Since the 2017 law was passed, the Maryland Catholic Conference has spent more than $1 million on lobbying efforts in Annapolis, according to public records.

Having the ability to sue perpetrators of abuse and those who employed or enabled them is important to survivors. Just filing a lawsuit can enable a survivor to publicly name their accusers, turn up evidence and warn others about the abusers.

“The catharsis of even knowing they could bring the litigation, even if they didn’t, is so impactful to survivors,” said Kathleen Hoke, a University of Maryland law professor who has advised survivors in Maryland.

Lawsuits can spur institutional reforms as well, said Kathryn Robb, executive director of CHILD USAdvocacy, which has pressed for laws in Maryland and other states.

“The only way institutions will pay attention is if we have civil laws that expose their failures — whether the failure is not being transparent or the failure is moving these sexual predators around,” Robb said.

When Pennsylvania’s attorney general published a damning report about abuse by Catholic clergy in 2018, just two of the 300 priests named were charged criminally, which highlights the role of civil litigation, Robb said. Some dioceses filed for bankruptcy after a flood of lawsuits.

“Criminal statutes are limited in their effectiveness,” she said. “We know that Maryland right now has no criminal statute of limitations, that’s great. But when was the last time you saw an institution go to jail?”

Baltimore Banner reporter Tim Prudente contributed to this article.