By George P. Matysek Jr.
Calling it “unconstitutional” and “unfair,” the Maryland Catholic Conference expressed its continued opposition to legislation approved March 10 by a state Senate committee that would treat private institutions such as the Catholic Church differently from public institutions in civil liabilities faced for child sexual abuse.
The “Child Victims Act,” which passed the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee on a 10-1 vote, would remove the civil statute of limitations for lawsuits and allow a “lookback window” for survivors to take legal action no matter when the abuse occurred.
Currently, the law in Maryland allows victims until age 38 to file such claims, an extension – from age 25 – that was supported by the church in 2017.
“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 March 10 Maryland Catholic Conference statement said.
The legislation “creates blatant disparity in its treatment of victims, with much lower monetary judgments available to victims of abuse in public institutions than those of abuse in private settings,” the Catholic Conference said.
The legislation caps judgments for private institutions at $1.5 million, while capping judgements against public institutions at only $890,000.
In an interview with the Catholic Review, Sen. Chris West, a Republican who represents Baltimore and Carroll counties and was the only member of the Senate committee to vote against the bill, said the disparity is fundamentally unfair.
He gave the example of two hypothetical 11-year-old girls who each suffered identical abuse cases, one at a Catholic school and the other from a public school on the opposite side of the street.
“The idea that one child, now much older, could file a lawsuit against the Catholic Church for a million and a half dollars, and that the other girl, now also much older, could only file suit against the former city school system for $890,000 sounds to me to be unequal treatment, unfair treatment and unacceptable treatment,” West said.
West said he voted against the legislation because he also sees it as “clearly unconstitutional.” He noted that when lawmakers passed the 2017 law, they included a statute of repose that prevents lawsuits once the limitations period expired.
“Trying now to ignore the statute of repose and extend the statute of limitations back in time forever is a flagrant violation of the statute of repose and therefore unconstitutional,” West said.
He added that he is “absolutely convinced” that the Maryland Supreme Court will rule the legislation unconstitutional.
The Maryland Catholic Conference said even with the lower damage cap for public entities, the proposed law will “carry an immense financial burden for Maryland families, including those already struggling financially and who rely on the state and others for support.
“The attorney for the Maryland Association of Boards of Education has testified that the legislation could lead to the filing of as many as 3,000 lawsuits at a cost to taxpayers of $2.5 billion,” the conference said.
The legislative advocacy group for Maryland’s Catholic bishops pointed out that the Catholic Church in Maryland has provided millions of dollars in therapeutic counseling and direct financial payments to victim-survivors “and believes this legislation, if passed, will be found unconstitutional and provides false hope to victims who have already suffered far too much.”
The legislation will now move to the full Senate for a vote.
Email George Matysek at gmatysek@CatholicReview.org