Maryland delegate's effort to allow child abuse lawsuits clears hurdle

After a compromise, a bill that would give Maryland abuse victims more time to file lawsuits is advancing.

C.T. Wilson gathered his courage, told his colleagues in the Maryland House of Delegates about how he was sexually abused as a child and urged them to allow child victims more time to file lawsuits against their attackers.

The first two times he did that, the Charles County Democrat saw his proposal die in a House committee without even being called for a vote.

But this year, he may have prevailed. The House Judiciary Committee on Wednesday approved legislation to let victims file lawsuits until they're 38 years old — 13 years later than current law allows. And Thursday morning, the full House advanced Wilson's bill to a final vote.

"I had no idea it was going to pass" out of committee, Wilson said. "I figured I would fight every year."

He said it was a relief after repeatedly giving painful testimony.

"It's a huge accomplishment. Also a huge weight," Wilson said. "To expose yourself like that is so painful."

For the bill to advance, two powerful opponents had to be won over: the Catholic Church and Del. Joseph F. Vallario Jr., chairman of the Judiciary Committee. Their concerns were satisfied when the bill was amended to make it more for difficult for victims older than 25 to win damages in civil lawsuits.

"We think this is a fair compromise," said Mary Ellen Russell, executive director of the Maryland Catholic Conference.

The state Senate unanimously approved a similar proposal Wednesday. Either the Senate bill or House bill must be approved by the other chamber before April 10 for the legislation to advance to the desk of Republican Gov. Larry Hogan.

Wilson, 45, has told colleagues for the past three years about how he was beaten and raped by his adoptive father as a child, and how the effects of the abuse linger decades later. Wilson’s adopted father is now dead.

While the bill is "not a silver bullet," Wilson hopes that it will offer one measure of legal help to child abuse victims.

Often, he said, it takes years for people who were abused as children to come to terms with what happened — sometimes when they have children of their own.

Those victims would then find out that Maryland law only allows civil lawsuits against alleged attackers until the victim is 25 years old. Wilson's bill extends that deadline to 20 years after becoming a legal adult at age 18.

The Catholic Church had fought versions of the bill for years, even before Wilson became the legislation's chief champion. On Wednesday afternoon, two representatives from the Maryland Catholic Conference sat alongside Wilson in support of the bill.

"This is a fair way of allowing these people to have their time in court," Russell said.

For victims up to age 25, the bill allows courts to award damages against institutions that employ or supervise abusers if negligence is proven. For older victims, the bill requires gross negligence — a tougher legal standard — in order to award damages.

Vallario, who is Catholic, said the change in liability for the older cases satisfied his concerns and led him to allow the committee vote after preventing it for years.

Vallario said it can be difficult for institutions such as churches to defend cases decades after abuse is alleged to have occurred. "Sometimes these priests are dead, and it's very hard for the church to defend," the Prince George's County Democrat said in an interview.

The Maryland Catholic Conference had previously objected to the bill because churches that employed abusers would be held to a different standard than government institutions. State law prohibits child sex abuse lawsuits from being filed against state and local governments — including school districts, foster care services and other public institutions — once the alleged victim turns 21. The Wilson bill would not change that.

The church dropped its objection when the bill was amended to make it more difficult for a plaintiff over 25 to win damages.

The Catholic Church has been enmeshed in controversy for years over sexual abuse of children at the hands of priests. The Archdiocese of Baltimore has paid millions of dollars in claims lodged by dozens of people. The diocese's policy is to offer voluntary settlements regardless of the amount of time that passed since the abuse took place.

The church's earlier opposition to letting older victims press lawsuits wore on Del. Eric Bromwell, a Baltimore County Democrat who had sponsored the bill before Wilson became involved. Bromwell withdrew the bill after just one year, having been inundated with criticism. He said the effort had been started by the late Del. Pauline Menes, a Democrat who represented Prince George's and Anne Arundel counties.

On Wednesday, Bromwell rushed from another committee hearing to meet Wilson at the Judiciary Committee. He embraced Wilson and told him he was proud of his work.

"It should have happened 10 years ago," Bromwell said after the committee vote.

Bromwell said it was tough when he gave up sponsoring the bill, unable to take pressure from the church.

"It was the hardest thing I have done in my life," Bromwell said. "I had to call people who had been abused and tell them I couldn't be their bill sponsor anymore."

Then he befriended Wilson, a burly former bouncer who said he had been abused as a child. Bromwell watched Wilson tell his colleagues of the abuse one year, and then another, and then another. Each time, Bromwell said, it weighed on Wilson for days before the testimony and even longer afterward.

It was Wilson's personal story, Bromwell said, that eventually forced the issue to a vote.

"Because it was one of our own, it was inevitable that it would come to a vote," Bromwell said. "And when it finally did, it sailed out."

Perhaps even more important than the expanded legal rights for child abuse victims, Wilson said, is the message that the legislature is sending to them.

He said that even if victims don't end up filing more lawsuits, they'll know that their representatives in Annapolis care about them.

"You want them to know they're not ignored," Wilson said.

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