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Bill to lift limits on child sex abuse lawsuits in Maryland fails

A bill that would have enabled untold numbers of child sexual abuse survivors to file civil lawsuits in Maryland has been defeated.

The Senate’s Judicial Proceedings Committee on Wednesday deadlocked 5-5 on the measure, which would have eliminated the statute of limitations for civil claims related to child sexual abuse. The bill had already sailed through the House of Delegates.

The committee vote infuriated Del. C.T. Wilson, the bill’s sponsor and a survivor of child abuse himself. “They did their best to protect pedophiles,” an angry Wilson said in an interview after the vote.

Wilson observed the committee’s voting session, which he said featured a “tornado” of misinformation about the law and his bill.

Even though Wilson was present, he said none of the senators asked him questions about his bill. He said senators were “cowards” not to discuss the bill with him.

Sen. Bob Cassilly said he didn’t think a credible case had been made to change Maryland’s law on child abuse lawsuits, which was last changed two years ago. “What was worked out in the last iteration made sense,” said Cassilly, a Harford County Republican. “It was workable. Everybody agreed to it.”

In 2017, Wilson led the charge to extend the statute of limitations from age 25 to age 38. For victims up to age 25, the bill allows courts to award damages against institutions that employed or supervised abuses if negligence is proven. For older victims, the bill requires proof of gross negligence, a tougher legal standard.

The tougher standard for older victims was a necessary concession to get the Catholic Church to drop its long-standing opposition to allowing a more generous statute of limitations.

Wilson said he didn’t realize that the final version of that bill included a legal provision called a “statute of repose” that prevented past victims from filing lawsuits.

Wilson said the language was “snuck in” and “it protected the church for anything in the past.”

Wilson’s bill this year would have addressed that issue by not only eliminating the statute of limitations entirely, but also by opening a two-year window for victims to file lawsuits if they were previously barred from doing so because of the time limits.

Wilson has argued that look-back windows in other states have helped identify scores of abusers, as lawsuits have turned up documents and evidence.

The Archdiocese of Baltimore submitted written testimony in opposition to the bill, particularly the “unconstitutional provision to open a two-year retroactive window allowing civil cases of child sexual abuse to be brought forward regardless of how long ago they are alleged to have occurred.”

The church wrote that the retroactive window would have a “devastating impact” and could expose institutions to “unsubstantiated claims of abuse.”

Sen. Michael Hough, a Frederick County Republican, voted against Wilson’s legislation. “I know he’s upset,” Hough said. “He was screaming at us, but we have to come up with a fair standard.”

Hough argued there is currently no statute of limitations on criminal felonies in the state of Maryland — and current law already allows civil lawsuits to follow a criminal conviction, Hough said.

“In Maryland you’re always liable for a felony crime,” Hough said. “At any point in your life, you can be criminally charged for something you did.”

Hough said he has “no sympathy” for child abusers. “But I’m also for making sure we have fair processes where people can defend themselves,” Hough said. “I just don’t think you can adequately defend yourself against cases 50 or 60 years old.”

The others who voted against the bill in the committee where Sen. Jill P. Carter, a Baltimore Democrat; Sen. Justin Ready, a Carroll County Republican; and Sen. Chris West, a Baltimore County Republican.

pwood@baltsun.com

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