House lawmakers stood and cheered Friday following the passage of a bill to allow all survivors of childhood sexual abuse to sue their abusers. The delegates’ eyes were trained on House Economic Matters Committee Chair C.T. Wilson, the sponsor, who had for sessions laid bare his story of abuse.
“I spent the better part of eight, nine years fighting for this bill, but I’ve spent my entire life being chased by my demons,” Wilson said ahead of the bill’s passage.
The House passed the Child Victims Act (House Bill 1), on a vote of 132-2, with Republican Del. William Valentine and Del. William Wivell, both representatives of Frederick and Washington counties, casting the only opposition votes.
Even Anne Arundel County Republican Del. Nic Kipke, who said Friday morning that he would vote against the bill as something he considered unconstitutional, flipped his vote from red to green.
Those who have opposed the bill, which would end the statute of limitations for such lawsuits, included the Maryland Catholic Conference. Opponents have expressed concern that the creation of a “lookback window” to file retroactive lawsuits is not permitted under the state constitution. Currently, Maryland bars lawsuits brought by adults if the victim is now older than 38.
“I don’t know whether this bill is constitutional or not — elements of it — I don’t get paid to make those decisions, and really, at the end of the day, neither do all of us,” said House Minority Leader Jason Buckel of Allegany County. “There will be people of good faith and good conscience who will vote against the bill because of that perspective and I hope no one views them differently because of this, because they abhor child sexual predators as much as anyone in the room.
“But, for me — not as the minority leader, not as a Republican, just for me — I have to vote to give a chance to people who claim that they were harmed in the most horrific ways possible as children.”
The legislation was amended in the Senate earlier this month to allow the Maryland Supreme Court to determine the law’s constitutionality before cases are heard in a lower court and to cap awards from lawsuits.
Attorney General Anthony Brown told lawmakers last month that he would feel comfortable supporting the new law in court.
The House floor was somber before Friday’s vote of final approval. The House Judiciary Committee held an emotional vote Wednesday that conformed Wilson’s bill to the version the Senate passed earlier in the session.
This is the closest the legislation has come to reaching the governor’s desk since Wilson first sponsored it in 2019. Now, just one quick trip through the Senate and it will reach Democratic Gov. Wes Moore for his signature.
When House Speaker Adrienne A. Jones, a Baltimore County Democrat, announced that the bill had passed, the chamber stood in applause of Wilson’s years of hard work. House Judiciary Committee Chair Luke Clippinger of Baltimore got up from his desk and walked across the chamber to embrace Wilson as their colleagues looked on.
“They have come and spoken to us year after year, after year, after year, after year, after year, after year,” Clippinger said of survivors and advocates who lobbied for the bill’s passage.
“It’s up to us, right now, to take the next important step to make sure we as a state acknowledge that these survivors are being heard and they’re being heard right now. To my friend from Charles County: We got this,” Clippinger said, addressing Wilson.
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The bill’s passage comes as survivors of childhood sexual abuse and their supporters wait for the release of an attorney general report detailing the abuse of over 600 children and adolescents at the hands of Catholic priests under the purview of the Archdiocese of Baltimore.
Susan Gibbs of the Catholic Conference said that the three Catholic dioceses that cover Maryland have striven to protect children and publicize the names of abusers.
“Maryland is one of few states across the nation with no criminal statute of limitations on child sexual abuse, so a perpetrator may always be held criminally accountable,” Gibbs said. “The Maryland Catholic Conference has worked collaboratively with the legislature on reasonable expansions of the law in the past.”
Wilson said that no one “intended to protect the church in perpetuity” in previous legislation.
“I think the thing that hurt the most is to hear the church tell me I am creating nothing but ‘baseless hope,’” said Wilson, who declared himself a Christian. “That’s what the atheists say about us.”
Maryland Policy & Politics
Saying he said “might surprise” his colleagues with his remarks, Republican Del. Mark Fisher of Calvert County, described his reasons for supporting the bill. He referred to the 2017 Netflix documentary series, “The Keepers.” It details allegations of abuse against a priest at Archbishop Keough High School in Baltimore in the 1960s and 1970s, and airs victims’ concerns about the killing of a nun who learned what the priest had done.
Fisher said that man, the late Joseph Maskell, was his parish priest, and the series’ producers interviewed his parents “for hours” and used in their production a photo of Maskell confirming his sister at Fisher’s childhood home.
He said he was not abused by Maskell, but said the Child Victims Act is being passed in the name of the children at his church and at Archbishop Keough — some of whom he’s related to.
“As a devout Catholic, it kills me in so many ways to see that this, indeed, happened. But it is true that Father Maskell did, indeed, engage in these acts and it is true that he murdered a nun — and maybe others — as documented in ‘The Keepers.’” Fisher said. Before Maskell died in 2001, he denied in interviews with police and The Baltimore Sun that he abused students or had any knowledge of Sister Cathy Cesnik’s murder, which remains unsolved.
“These individuals deserve justice, in my opinion,” Fisher said, “and the only way to truly move forward — as a body, as a state but, certainly, the Catholic Church, in my opinion, is to make these individuals whole.”
Wilson said the bill will not “undo” trauma or make anyone “whole — you can’t.”
“To the individuals in this body, in this State House, your staff that reached out to me over the years — dozens and dozens — and told me their story — shared with me something they won’t share with anybody else — you were heard,” Wilson declared. “This is a constitutional bill, but more than that, this is hope.”