By Christopher Gunty
The Maryland Catholic Conference issued a statement Dec. 19 indicating support for legislation that would prospectively eliminate statutes of limitation for civil litigation involving cases of child sexual abuse.
Similar legislation eliminating the statute of limitations for a minor victim of a human trafficking offense or federal sex offense to file a civil action to recover damage was signed into law at the federal level in September.
“That bipartisan federal legislation also allows individuals an unlimited amount of time to file civil litigation in future cases of child sexual abuse,” the MCC statement said.
Prospectively eliminating the statutes of limitations would affect cases of sexual abuse that occur now or in the future. It would not affect cases that happened in the past, retroactively. In general, the statute of limitations that applies in a case is the one that was in effect at the time of the abuse, not when it was reported.
According to a Congressional Research Service report in 2019, “(C)ourts have recognized that the (federal) Constitution limits how far back a retroactive law may reach. … Statutes that reach back only a year or two generally do not raise serious constitutional concerns.” The Congressional Research Service provides public policy research for the U.S. Congress and operates within the Library of Congress.
The MCC statement said, “The Catholic Church in Maryland will support legislation that may be introduced during the 2023 Maryland General Assembly session that prospectively eliminates the statute of limitation in civil lawsuits involving cases of child sexual abuse.” The MCC represents the public policy interests of the dioceses that encompass Maryland – the archdioceses of Baltimore and Washington and the Diocese of Wilmington, Del.
“For some victims of such crimes, it may take decades before they are able to come forward to report their abuse. In the past, the Catholic Church in Maryland has supported efforts to extend the age by which victim-survivors may file civil suits,” the MCC said.
Currently, the law in Maryland allows victims until the age of 38 to file such claims, an extension – from age 25 – that was supported by the church in 2017. That bill, sponsored by Del. C.T. Wilson (D-Charles), included a statute of repose that bars survivors of child sexual abuse from suing their abuser’s employer after they turn 38. In 2021, Wilson introduced another bill to remove the statute of limitations to launch civil suits by victim-survivors of sexual abuse when they were a minor, and repeal the statute of repose. That bill included a two-year “lookback” window that allowed suits for past incidents of abuse.
According to Maryland Matters, “A 2019 opinion from Assistant Attorney General Kathryn M. Rowe stated that both the lookback window and repealing the statute of repose would be unconstitutional because it would obstruct the ‘vested rights’ provided under the 2017 bill.”
Critics of the bill pointed out that public entities, including public schools, would be treated differently than private entities such as churches, nonprofits and businesses, with much lower liability for public institutions because of sovereign immunity. The 2021 legislation was eventually withdrawn in the house by Wilson and the Senate version did not move out of committee, Maryland Matters reported about two weeks before the end of that session.
According to a 2022 annual report from the archdiocesan Office of Child and Youth Protection and the Independent Review Board, the OCYP “offers survivors counseling and pastoral services with the therapist of their choice and coordinates a financial mediation program for survivors upon their request for monetary compensation in lieu of counseling.”
Since the early 1980s, the archdiocese has paid more than $13.2 million to 301 victim-survivors for counseling and direct payments.
“As part of this pastoral outreach, in 2007 the archdiocese began a mediation program with a retired, non-Catholic judge that has resulted in 105 settlements for a total of $6.8 million,” said Christian Kendzierski, executive director of communications for the Archdiocese of Baltimore. “Offers of counseling assistance and mediations are made to victim-survivors regardless of how long ago the alleged abuse occurred and without regard to legal liability.”
The MCC statement said, “Fortunately, in Maryland, there currently also is no statute of limitations on the criminal prosecution of child sexual offenders, meaning perpetrators can already be held criminally responsible until the day they die.
“The Maryland Attorney General has concluded, in multiple advice letters, that legislation that seeks to retroactively revive claims currently time-barred in Maryland would be unconstitutional, another reason the Catholic Church supports prospective legislation,” the statement said.
“The Catholic bishops serving Maryland reiterate their commitment to policies already in place to protect children and to advance healing for those harmed, and again offer heartfelt apologies to those harmed at any time by a representative of the church,” the MCC statement said. “The bishops pledge their continued support of efforts that promote healing for victim-survivors, protect young people and hold abusers accountable.”