The Maryland House of Delegates in Annapolis.
The Maryland House of Delegates in Annapolis. (By Paul W. Gillespie, Staff)

The Maryland House of Delegates gave preliminary approval Saturday to a sweeping bill that would remove restrictions on when victims of child sexual abuse can file lawsuits.

Maryland’s lawmakers previously extended the deadlines to file lawsuits from child sexual abuse up to age 38, but this bill would lift the statute of limitations entirely. It also would give anyone who was previously unable to file a lawsuit because of the statute of limitations a two-year window to file a lawsuit.

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The Maryland General Assembly has made it easier for abuse victims to sue, driven by the advocacy of Del. C.T. Wilson, a Charles County Democrat who has publicly shared his own painful story of child abuse.

Wilson sponsored the 2017 bill that expanded the window to file a lawsuit from age 25 to age 38, and is sponsoring this year’s bill.

“We’ve been protecting institutions for generations and years,” Wilson said, deeming the situation “an emergency” that warrants action from lawmakers.

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Wilson noted that when California passed a similar law that allowed a two-year window for lawsuits, 300 more predators were discovered.

“That's protecting our children,” Wilson said.

In an interview, Wilson said that abusers have had “legislative protection.” He noted that some Catholic priests accused of abuse in Pennsylvania relocated to Maryland, as outlined in a lengthy report released last year by Pennsylvania’s attorney general.

“Maryland was a repository for bad actors because we had soft laws,” Wilson said.

The delegates rejected an effort to remove that two-year window. Del. Kathleen Dumais argued that it would open the courts to a flood of lawsuits against schools, churches and even the government from long-ago incidents that would be difficult to defend. Dumais, a Montgomery County Democrat, said it would set the court system “on its head.”

The effort to expand access to courts for child abuse victims comes as Americans are becoming more aware of extensive child abuse issues.

Not only has the scope of abusive Catholic priests been revealed in recent years, but there also has been publicity around countless cases of abusive sports coaches, teachers and doctors. Larry Nassar, a former sports doctor based in Michigan, is serving an effective life sentence after hundreds of athletes — including Olympic champion gymnasts — testified about his sexual abuse.

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And just four miles from the State House in Annapolis, families and alumni of the Key School are grappling with revelations that 10 adults in positions of power at the private school sexually abused students in the 1970s, 1980s and early 1990s. A Key school alumna was among those who testified in favor of Wilson's bill.

“This is an issue that is growing in magnitude every single day. It is growing in magnitude across the country,” said Del. Luke Clippinger, a Baltimore Democrat who chairs the House Judiciary Committee. The bill was approved by his committee on a bipartisan 17-4 vote, and no one testified against it during a public hearing.

“This bill would state the clear intention of this legislature that those people should get relief,” Clippinger said.

The bill now moves to a final vote in the House of Delegates on Monday. If it passes the House, the measure would then move to the state Senate for consideration. The Senate does not have its own version of the bill.

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The House of Delegates was in session on Saturday afternoon in advance of a procedural deadline on Monday. Bills must be approved by at least one chamber — the House or the Senate — by the end of the day on Monday to guarantee consideration in the other chamber.

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