A man who, at age 9, was shown a gun before being forced to have sex with a priest. A woman who at age 14 was plied with drugs by teachers, sexually assaulted by them, and impregnated. A man who was sodomized by detention-center caretakers at age 15.
Before Sunday, there was little these individuals could do to hold their alleged perpetrators accountable in court in Maryland. Now they’re plaintiffs in some of the first lawsuits to be filed against accused offenders under the Child Victims Act, a new law that removes the statute of limitations on child sex abuse lawsuits.
These cases are some of the first of what is expected to be a flood of suits filed under the act.
After several failed attempts in recent years, state lawmakers passed the law in April on the heels of the release of a Maryland Attorney General’s Office report on the history of sexual abuse in the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Baltimore. The archdiocese filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy Friday, a move that blocks civil litigation against it, but dozens of people who say they were victims of sexual abuse as children at the hands of other institutions filed lawsuits against their alleged perpetrators Monday, the day the Child Victims Act went into effect.
Among the plaintiffs are two women who announced Friday that they planned to sue the Key School in Annapolis, the exclusive private school where they say a group of teachers groomed, drugged and raped them over several years during the 1970s; dozens who say they survived systemic abuse at the hands of guards and caretakers in state juvenile facilities in Maryland over a course of decades; and a man who says a Catholic priest abused him at a Gaithersburg church in 1986.
A group of attorneys filed six lawsuits against the state on behalf of more than 50 plaintiffs (the majority filed using a pseudonym), specifically citing several juvenile facilities overseen by the Department of Juvenile Services.
The complaints lay out the department’s alleged indifference to abuse and how vulnerable children were sexually exploited and otherwise abused at such sites as the Charles H. Hickey Jr. School, a juvenile detention center in Baltimore County, the Cheltenham Youth Detention Center in Prince George’s County, the Thomas J.S. Waxter Children’s Center in Laurel, and the Montrose School, a juvenile training facility in Baltimore County that was closed in 1988.
“When you don’t supervise people in charge of children it becomes a predator’s buffet,” said attorney Sharon Iskra, who is lead counsel on the cases at Bailey & Glasser, one of four firms representing the juvenile services victims.
“They had keys to every child’s room and they could access them at any time,” Iskra added.
“The Maryland Department of Juvenile Services is aware of these allegations from decades ago,” the department’s communications director, Eric Solomon, said in an email to The Baltimore Sun. “DJS takes allegations of sexual abuse of children in our care very seriously and we are working hard to provide decent, humane, and rehabilitative environments for youth committed to the Department. The Department is currently reviewing the lawsuits with the Office of the Attorney General.”
The lawsuits also cited the state health department, which was responsible for the well-being of juveniles in state care between 1969 and 1987, when it was known as the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, and a spokesman for that department had a similar take on the complaints.
“The Maryland Department of Health is aware of these allegations from decades ago,” spokesman Chase Cook said in an email to The Sun. “The Health Department has not provided these services since 1987, but takes all such claims very seriously and always strives to provide the best and safest care for all patients. We do not comment on active litigation.”
Another team of lawyers filed on behalf of the two former Key School students, Carolyn Surrick, 64, a musician and writer who lives in Annapolis, and Valerie Bunker, 64, a Maryland native who lives in Oregon, as well as of David Schappelle, 46, a human resources manager who lives in Ellicott City. Schappelle said he was abused by a serial predator-priest, Fr. Wayland Brown, now deceased, at St. Rose of Lima Catholic Church beginning in 1986. He is suing the Archdiocese of Washington.
The Baltimore Sun does not name victims of sexual assault or abuse without their consent. These plaintiffs spoke publicly at a news conference Friday.
Another plaintiff who appeared at the Friday conference, Eva Dittrich of Pasadena filed suit Monday against St. Clement Catholic Parish in Lansdowne. Dittrich, 68, alleges that the notorious predator priest Fr. Joseph Maskell began drugging and raping her while he was a pastor at the Lansdowne parish when she was 11, and that the abuse continued for years. Dittrich can sue the parish, an affiliate of the archdiocese, because like most of the parishes in the religious jurisdiction, it is a legal entity unto itself.
Rob Jenner of the Jenner Law Firm, one of the firms representing the group that went public Friday, cast the lawsuits as a means of seeking accountability, and providing victims with a voice, that they have frustratingly lacked until now.
“These lawsuits are the culmination of decades of legislative [work] in the Maryland General Assembly [and] made possible by the release of the Maryland Attorney General’s Report chronicling 80 years of abuse and torture at the hands of enabled perpetrators and the duplicity of the Archdiocese of Baltimore,” he said. “The [Child Victims Act] is the springboard toward transparency and justice in a system that has too long favored the rights of offenders while trampling the rights of survivors.”
A sixth individual, Kimberly Mills-Bonham, 62, said at the Friday conference that she, too, was a Maskell victim and was ready to file suit against the Archdiocese, but she had to abandon the plan hours later because Maskell’s abuse of her took place at Archbishop Keough High School, which closed in 2017. That left her with no Catholic entity to sue once the archdiocese filed for bankruptcy Friday, Jenner said.
Detractors of the Child Victims Act argued that it violated the Maryland constitution. Lawmakers included language in the final version of the bill that would allow any legal challenge on that ground to be elevated directly to the state supreme court, allowing for a quicker resolution of the thorny legal question.
It is widely expected that there will be challenges to the constitutionality of the new law.
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Matthew Nespole, the head of school at Key School, alluded to how the act might fare if legally challenged in a statement he emailed to The Sun on Monday.
“The constitutionality of the Child Victims Act and any legal proceedings against Key School relating to reported actions by former faculty decades ago will be addressed through the judicial process,” he wrote. “Key School will continue to focus our efforts on ensuring the safety and well-being of our students and providing them an exceptional education. While we understand the public’s interest in this matter, it is our longstanding policy not to comment on pending legal action.”
The statement also referred to the results of an independent report on abuse allegations against the school which are posted on its website.
The Child Victims Act also sets different limits on the size of potential monetary judgments based on whether they’re private or public institutions.
Private institutions such as the Catholic Church and independent schools are subject to a $1.5 million maximum penalty per incident for such “noneconomic” damages as emotional hardship or other pain and suffering. (There is no limit for noneconomic damages such as medical care or counseling, in judgments against private institutions.)
Judgments against public entities like municipalities or school boards are capped at $890,000 due to Maryland laws that limit the exposure public bodies face in civil suits.
Archdiocese officials, including Archbishop William E. Lori, have long characterized the distinction between public and private as unfair.