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Maryland

Survivor groups slam Maryland Catholic Church statement on statute of limitations reform for failing to serve past victims

Survivors of clergy sexual abuse and groups supporting them slammed the Maryland Catholic Church on Tuesday for a statement it issued on statute of limitations reform in the state, arguing that the position the church spelled out addresses only future cases of abuse and does nothing to help past victims.

The Maryland Catholic Conference, the lobbying arm of the Catholic Church in Maryland, said in a statement Monday that the church “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.”

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The group issued the statement in response to recent media questions about its position on statute of limitations reform. The Baltimore Sun recently reported that the conference spent $200,000 in the past few years to block legislation related to claims against it.

The conference’s statement goes on to say that legislation similar to the kind it will support was recently approved at the federal level — a reference to the “Eliminating Limits to Justice for Child Sex Abuse Victims Act of 2022,” which President Joe Biden signed into law in September.

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Survivor advocates pounced Tuesday, though, arguing that the federal act, far from protecting all victims of child sexual abuse, actually applies only in future cases and does nothing to allow survivors of prior abuse to seek civil redress for what they suffered.

The federal law does remove the statute of limitations for minor victims of human trafficking or federal sex offenses, which means that survivors of such crimes can file civil lawsuits against perpetrators at any time during their lives.

In Maryland, as in many states, there is no statute of limitations on criminal action against perpetrators of child sexual abuse.

Left to right: Judy Lorenz, David Lorenz (SNAP volunteer leader for Maryland), Teresa Lancaster, David O'Kane and Kimberly O'Kane.  Members of SNAP (Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests) hold a news conference in November outside the Marriott Waterfront Hotel, where the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops was holding its annual meeting.

The federal law mentioned in the statement applies to civil cases, but only in future cases, not those that happened previously.

“In our view, the statement by the [Maryland Catholic Conference] ... aims to convince the public that victims who suffered horrific sexual abuse in the past can seek redress under this [federal] law,” reads a statement issued Tuesday by SNAP, or Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests. “This is a false statement. ... It does nothing for the hundreds of brave victims who have come forward during the Maryland Attorney General’s investigation into historical clergy abuse within the Archdiocese of Baltimore.”

By its own language, the federal law eliminating statutes of limitations applies only to “any claim or action arising after the date of enactment of this act,” leaving legal options for those who were injured years ago to be defined by the individual states.

The Catholic conference issued its statement amid fierce ongoing debate over what should be done with a 456-page report the Maryland Attorney General’s Office has produced as part of its four-year investigation into sexual abuse of minors by clergy in the Archdiocese of Baltimore during the past 80 years.

The attorney general’s office has asked a Baltimore judge to release the report, which identifies 158 priests, other clergy, and lay people it says committed abusive acts against some 600 minor victims dating back to the 1940s. It’s currently under seal because of a Maryland law governing the confidentiality of grand jury testimony.

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The Archdiocese of Baltimore has said it supports public release of the document. It later announced in a statement to members of the archdiocese that the church is funding an anonymous group of employees and ex-employees, individuals named in the report but not accused of crimes, who have filed a motion seeking to influence the report’s content before it can be released and to seal all deliberations about its future.

While critics say the church’s decision to pay the fees could signal an effort to control what is released, the archdiocese has insisted it’s attempting to ensure that those individuals receive fair treatment.

Circuit Judge Anthony Vittoria ordered Dec. 8 that all court proceedings, communications and filings related to the report must remain confidential.

Critics of the conference’s Monday statement say that while it might lead some to believe the church will support the Child Victims’ Act — a bill sponsored and pre-filed for the 2023 session by Del. C.T. Wilson, a Charles County Democrat and a survivor of childhood abuse — the language does not say the church will support that bill as it stands.

Originally titled the Hidden Predator Act, the legislation would establish a two-year look-back window for survivors to file suit. Wilson has attempted several times to get it through the Maryland General Assembly, only to see it blocked in the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee and never make the Senate floor.

The conference’s Monday statement affirms that the church will support legislation that “may” be submitted during the session that “prospectively” eliminates the statute of limitation in relevant civil lawsuits.

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A “prospective” law, in legal terminology, is one that applies only in cases that arise after its enactment.

“Once again, the church appears to be supporting survivors while at the same time it’s laying the groundwork for preventing them to seek justice,” said David Lorenz, director of the Maryland chapter of SNAP.

At issue in the back-and-forth over the church’s position, lawyers familiar with the statement say, is a question that has been debated numerous times in child sexual abuse cases: whether “look-back windows” — finite periods of time, often two years, during which survivors are legally granted a chance to file civil lawsuits over past sexual abuse, no matter when it occurred — is constitutional within the laws of the state at hand.

As part of its Monday statement, the Catholic conference pointed to a fact it believes supports the idea that “look-backs” are unconstitutional under Maryland law.

“The Maryland attorney general has concluded, in multiple advice letters, that legislation [seeking] to retroactively revive claims [that are] currently time-barred in Maryland would be unconstitutional,” the statement said.

Survivors’ attorneys and others familiar with the case, though, said an attorney general’s view amounts to legal opinion, not law. They argue that the matter can only be settled within a state’s legal system and that rulings in numerous states already found that reviving past cases that are currently time-bound is permissible.

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“At least 15 other states, including California, Delaware, New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania, have all revived past cases. Challenges claiming that these look-back windows are unconstitutional have mostly failed,” said Andrew Freeman, an attorney at the Baltimore law firm of Brown, Goldstein & Levy who represents victims of child sexual abuse.

Kathleen Hoke, a professor at the University of Maryland Carey School of Law who has worked to help survivor groups understand the legal issues involved, said that if legislators do pass a state law that establishes a look-back window, she believes the Maryland church will wait until a childhood abuse survivor files a case and quickly file a motion challenging the constitutionality of the window.

“That will be litigated right away, and the Supreme Court of Maryland will ultimately hear the case; I’m confident of that,” said Hoke, who has met with Wilson and Democratic State Sen. Will Smith, chair of the Senate judicial proceedings committee, about the legislation and testified at hearings on the bills. “I’m confident it will be filed quickly and that question will be resolved.”

Spokespersons for the Maryland conference and the Archdiocese of Baltimore have pointed repeatedly in recent weeks to what the archdiocese calls the culture of transparency it has built around allegations of child sexual abuse during the past 30 years.

Changes the archdiocese has implemented include removing from ministry or employment all priests, deacons, religious or lay individuals who are credibly accused of abuse; reporting all allegations of abuse to law enforcement authorities; the provision of counseling and other forms of support for survivors; and the posting of the names of all accused priests and brothers it considers to have been credibly accused, along with brief descriptions of their misconduct and the dates of their past postings, on its website.

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The site currently lists 152 such priests and brothers. The archdiocese included that list among the more than 100,000 documents it supplied to the attorney general’s office as part of the investigation.

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The archdiocese began the policy of posting the names in 2002, becoming only the second diocese in the country to do so.

Though many survivors remain barred by law from suing due to the statute of limitations, the Archdiocese of Baltimore does make payments to past victims. It has paid more than $13.2 million to 301 victims since it first began paying settlements, with the figure including money for counseling as well as direct payments, said Christian Kendzierski, a spokesman for the archdiocese, in an email to The Sun last week. A “retired, non-Catholic” judge mediates claims from Baltimore-area survivors and makes recommendations as to what their financial award should be.

Asked Tuesday whether the Maryland Catholic Conference or Maryland church would support anything other than prospective changes in statute law, including Wilson’s legislation, Susan Gibbs, a spokeswoman for the conference, replied only that the organization supports “elimination of the statute of limitations prospectively.”

Gibbs referred again to the state attorney general’s advice letters that suggest look-back windows are unconstitutional in the state.

“The Maryland Catholic Conference will continue working in good faith on legislative compromise,” she wrote in an email to The Sun. “The dioceses in Maryland have long focused on prevention of abuse and on responding to those who have been harmed, whenever that harm occurred. That commitment will continue.”

Baltimore Sun reporter Lee O. Sanderlin contributed to this article.


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