The Maryland Senate voted 42-5 to pass Senate Bill 686, which would remove the civil statute of limitations for child sexual abuse lawsuits and allow survivors to file lawsuits regardless of when their abuse happened.
Thursday night’s vote was likely the final major hurdle for the bill, known as the Child Victims Act, which now heads to the House where it has passed each year it has been introduced.
Gov. Wes Moore also has publicly expressed his support for the bill, with his office telling The Baltimore Sun that Moore looked forward to signing the bill into law.
The Senate version is cross-filed with House Bill 1, sponsored by Del. C.T. Wilson. Democratic Sen. Will Smith, who chairs the Judicial Proceedings Committee, sponsored his chamber’s bill.
The Senate’s vote comes on the cusp of the public release of the Maryland Attorney General’s report on the history of sexual abuse within the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Baltimore. The 456-page report, which could be released any day now, details the sexual abuse of more than 600 victims, mostly children and young adults, at the hands of more than 150 priests and other clergy.
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Maryland Policy & Politics
The Maryland Catholic Conference, the lobbying arm for the Catholic Church’s three dioceses operating in the state, opposes the bill, writing in letters to lawmakers and in statements to the news media that it is unconstitutional. As a result of its stance, a spokesperson with the Catholic conference has said the bill gives survivors “false hope.”
Survivors and advocates have lobbied for the bill in Annapolis for years.
Attorney General Anthony Brown, in a letter to Smith, said his office does not find the Child Victims Act “clearly unconstitutional” and that Brown is comfortable defending it in court.
Republican Sen. Chris West, representing a portion of Baltimore and Carroll counties, was the main voice of dissent in the Senate, repeatedly telling his fellow legislators that he believes it to be unconstitutional.
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The Senate version of the bill carries language that allows the Maryland Supreme Court to decide whether the bill is constitutional before potential lawsuits are litigated in a lower court, meaning the question of constitutionality would be decided fairly quickly should it be signed into law.
The bill sets differing limits on the size of monetary judgments against private institutions and public ones. Private institutions, such as the Catholic Church, would be subject to $1.5 million maximum penalty per incident for non-economic damages, such as emotional hardship or other pain and suffering. There is no limit for economic damages, like medical care or counseling, in judgments against a private institution.
Possible judgments against public entities like municipalities or school boards are capped at $890,000 because of Maryland laws that limit the exposure public bodies face in civil suits.