Survivors of child sexual abuse cleared an important hurdle Thursday night in their quest to sue complicit institutions, as the Maryland Senate approved vastly expanding eligibility to file civil lawsuits.

The vote tally was 42 senators in support and five opposed, and the final vote came without any debate.

The measure still needs approval from the House of Delegates — which is expected — before heading to Gov. Wes Moore’s desk.

“I feel really proud that we’ve at least given the survivors an opportunity to make their case and seek some justice,” said Sen. William C. Smith Jr., the bill’s sponsor and chairman of the committee that wrestled with versions of the bill for years.

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Smith said in an interview that he felt “somber” about finally getting the bill passed. The Montgomery County Democrat is uncertain that the bill will withstand legal scrutiny down the line, but he hopes it will.

For generations, abuse survivors have been stymied by legal limits in their attempts to hold institutions accountable for employing or enabling abusers.

First, they were restricted to filing a lawsuit only up until age 25. Then, when the age was raised to 38, a provision was quietly slipped into law that effectively further protected institutions like churches and schools.

Efforts to expand age eligibility and undo that legal provision, known as a statute of repose, had been approved by the House of Delegates but stalled in the state Senate in recent years.

After much wrangling both in public and behind the scenes, a new approach gained traction this year: Remove the statute of repose and eliminate all age limits, but institute caps on how much money could be awarded to victims whose lawsuits are successful. Lawmakers called it the Child Victims Act of 2023.

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With the bill clearing the Senate, it’s now up to the House of Delegates to approve the bill. Passage is all but assured; House leaders gave its version of the bill, sponsored by Del. C.T. Wilson of Charles County, the designation of House Bill 1, signaling its importance.

“All praise to C.T. for an unimaginable fight for years, just to open the window for an opportunity to have justice,” Smith said. “I’m just really proud to support his efforts.”

The bill has been supported by advocates for survivors of abuse, particularly those who were abused within Catholic churches and schools. Having the opportunity to hold abusers and their enablers accountable in the courts is an important part of the coping process, advocates say.

They also hope that filing lawsuits will uncover more abusers through the discovery process.

Many survivors don’t fully grasp or understand the scope of the abuse they suffered until well into adulthood, experts say, necessitating the relaxation of age limits for filing lawsuits.

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Meanwhile, the Catholic church, through its lobbying arm, the Maryland Catholic Conference, has been opposed to the bill. The Archdiocese of Baltimore recently sent a message to parishioners asking them to urge lawmakers to vote “no,” warning of financial harm to the church from potential lawsuits.

Opponents of the bill have noted that it sets different caps on financial damages for public institutions (such as public schools) versus private institutions (such as churches and private schools).

Others have suggested the bill may eventually be ruled unconstitutional if it’s challenged in courts; there have been conflicting opinions about whether removing the statute of repose is permitted because it vested a legal right in institutions.

“There are serious questions with constitutionality,” said Sen. Chris West, a Baltimore County Republican who voted against the bill.

The progress of the legislation comes as a Baltimore judge is poised to release a report of more than 400 pages detailing the history of child sexual abuse within the Archdiocese of Baltimore. The report is expected to detail the abuse of more than 600 victims over the last 80 years.

pamela.wood@thebaltimorebanner.com

Pamela Wood covers Maryland politics and government. She previously reported for The Baltimore Sun, The Capital and other Maryland newspapers. A graduate of the University of Maryland, College Park, she lives in northern Anne Arundel County. 

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