More than 25 survivors of childhood sexual abuse and their advocates gathered Thursday afternoon in a legislative hearing room in Annapolis to once again share their stories for lawmakers and the public.
Some of them shook as they spoke, some held back tears and others flat-out refused to talk about the past for their dignity’s sake. The memories of their abuse do not fade.
One recalled the smell of the priest’s polyester liturgical vestments, seared into his brain. Another remembered the feeling of a gun barrel pressed against him as he was raped.
This year marks the fourth time lawmakers will consider Del. C.T. Wilson’s Child Victims Act — a law that would remove the statute of limitations on childhood sexual abuse lawsuits and open a retroactive lookback window, which would allow survivors to sue their abusers and the institutions that enabled them regardless of when the abuse took place.
Currently, victims are legally prohibited from suing after their 38th birthday, although research shows victims, on average, either do not recall the abuse or are not comfortable telling anyone about it until around age 50.
“I just ask at a minimum that we send a message to the predators and the institutions that harbored and protected these bastards,” said Wilson, a Charles County Democrat, at a House hearing Thursday for his bill.
Wilson is himself a survivor of childhood sexual abuse and has been vocal about its impact. He told lawmakers that the lifelong trauma from his abuse has ruined his marriages and that he uses medication to sleep. He said he feels like a “husk of a human.”
“One day my suffering will mean something more than just this pain and loneliness and loss I have to deal with every day,” Wilson said.
Each of the three times Wilson’s bill has been proposed, the House, where he’s a member, passed it unanimously, but it died in the Senate, failing to make it out of the Judicial Proceedings Committee.
This year seems different, survivors and advocates said, giving them reason to hope their bill may actually pass.
In November, the Maryland Attorney General’s Office completed its four-year investigation into the history of sexual abuse in the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Baltimore and authored a 456-page report detailing how more than 150 clergy and other officials abused and tortured more than 600 victims over eight decades.
With likely hundreds more victims unknown, the report also details the lengths the church went to enable and cover up the abuse. Last week, a Baltimore judge ordered the public release of a redacted version of the attorney general’s report, likely sometime in mid-March.
Sen. Will Smith, a Montgomery County Democrat and chairman of the Judicial Proceedings Committee, sponsored the Senate’s version of the Child Victims Act and his committee held a hearing on the legislation in late February.
Smith’s committee is expected to vote on whether to advance the bill as soon as Tuesday.
Maryland Gov. Wes Moore, also a Democrat, supports the bill and commended Wilson and the survivors who “courageously” shared their stories and pushed the legislation, said Carter Elliott IV, Moore’s press secretary.
“Governor Moore looks forward to signing this bill into law to protect Maryland’s children,” Elliott said.
Supporters say the bill, which could result in monetary compensation should a lawsuit be successful, would work to deter future abuses and hold institutions like the Catholic Church accountable for systemically enabling and covering up abuses for decades. Lawsuits would mean records become public through discovery, which would lead to greater transparency about what occurred at places where the sexual abuse of children seemingly went unchecked.
Megan Venton, a woman who was sexually abused by some of her teachers while attending the Key School in Annapolis, was one of the survivors who testified before both the House and Senate. Unwilling to share the graphic details of her past, she asked lawmakers to hear about her present.
“What happened to me has had a profound influence on my life, on my relationships, decision making, emotional and physical health, and my ability to trust anyone to not be a predator,” Venton said.
The bill is not without opposition. The Maryland Catholic Conference, the public policy arm of the three dioceses operating throughout Maryland, has opposed it every time it has been filed, spending hundreds of thousands of dollars to lobby against it.
This year is no different, with the conference hiring former Judicial Proceedings Chair Robert “Bobby” Zirkin and Rick Abbruzzese, chief of staff for former-Gov. Martin O’Malley, to try and defeat it, according to publicly available lobbying records.
In written testimony to both the House and Senate, the Maryland Catholic Conference has said the establishment of a lookback window would be unconstitutional.
Maryland Attorney General Anthony Brown submitted a letter to Smith’s committee saying he does not believe the law is “clearly unconstitutional” and that he would feel comfortable defending it in court against any legal challenge.
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“While there is clearly no financial compensation that can ever rectify the harm done to a survivor of sexual abuse, the devastating impact that the retroactive window provision will potentially have by exposing public and private institutions — and the communities they serve — to unsubstantiated claims of abuse, cannot be ignored,” the Catholic Conference’s written testimony states.
For any lawsuit to be successful, the plaintiff — meaning the person alleging the abuse — would have to prove their claim beyond a reasonable doubt in court.
The Child Victims Act also caps the damages a person could win in court at $1.5 million per occurrence of abuse. The 25 other states that have passed similar laws do not have a cap. Still, for those able to sue the Catholic Church, the cap would be far greater than what area victims have received in the past.
As of December, the Archdiocese of Baltimore had paid $13.2 million to 301 victims, or about $43,850 per person.
Kurt Rupprecht, a Harford County resident who was raped as a child by a Catholic priest on the Eastern Shore, warned that neither compensation nor public shaming would fix his or his fellow survivors’ problems.
“There is no true healing from this type of childhood trauma,” he said. “Only survival.”
This story has been updated to correct the school Megan Venton attended. The Sun regrets the error.