Victims and children's advocates have long said Maryland's time limit on bringing a civil claim benefits the abuser instead of helping the abused seek justice. But the political climate for bolstering child abuse protections and aiding victims didn't exist until revelations that Catholic church leaders nationwide failed to act when they had the chance to stop predatory priests -- and in many cases protected them or knowingly transferred them from church to church where they continued to do harm.
Since then, California has suspended its statute of limitations for a year to give victims a chance to sue institutions that protected abusers. And at least 39 states have eased their time limits, recognizing that the trauma of abuse lingers into adulthood.
Two proposals now are before the Maryland General Assembly.
State Sen. Delores G. Kelley and several colleagues have proposed giving victims of child sexual abuse until at least their 33rd birthday to file a civil suit against alleged abusers. Under current state law, victims have until they turn 21.
Child abuse victims would have one year after a criminal trial to file a civil claim, under a proposal sponsored by state Del. Brian K. McHale and others. As Maryland has no statute of limitations on felonies, this would extend to older survivors of abuse a way to seek redress. It would also serve as a limit on suits claiming long-ago abuse, because very likely, only the strongest cases would be prosecuted under criminal law.
Some advocates feel the proposals are compatible; either, or a combination of them, would be a step in the right direction.
Many institutions would be affected; among the most vocal in opposition has been the Roman Catholic Church.
The Baltimore diocese revealed last September that it had spent $5.6 million over 20 years on settlements, counseling for victims, treatment for accused priests and other expenses related to abuse cases.
And while the church in Baltimore has made commendable progress at reforms, it often has been shielded from litigation by the Maryland time limit. Church leaders are right to be worried that they may face potentially costly suits if the law changes.
But that should not be lawmakers' primary concern:
They must focus on the needs of citizens who find the road to justice blocked. This is legislators' opportunity to ensure that public accountability for child abuse is attainable so that it becomes another deterrent to this horrible crime.
The state's highest court has said that only the General Assembly can make it possible for many of these victims to have their day in court. They've waited a long time. The state should give it to them.
Copyright © 2003, The Baltimore Sun
Paying for abuse
July 18, 2007.
It's been five years since the terrible revelations came to light about prolonged sexual abuse of children by American priests who were shielded from exposure by bishops and other members of the church hierarchy. Since then, the church required the nation's nearly 200 dioceses to have policies and procedures in place to protect children.
Baltimore has been considered a leader in that regard, creating a "safe environment" program that trained pastors, principals and youth leaders on preventing child abuse. Nevertheless, there are abuse victims in Maryland who are beyond the age of 24, the top limit for filing a civil claim - a rule that the General Assembly needs to change.
Now, the archdiocese and its insurers will pay a huge sum of money - more than six times previous recent settlements - to make the court cases disappear. What will not disappear is the need to continue rooting out abuse, confronting those who engage in it and not protecting offending clergy instead of children whose trust in them was betrayed.
Too many of the victims have "walked around spiritless," as one noted after the Los Angeles settlement was announced. That's the real cost of the church's failure to deal adequately and thoroughly with abuse.