Advocates for a bill to remove a statute of limitations on suing child sex abusers and the institutions they worked for said Tuesday that a pending state report detailing abuse by Catholic Church priests isn’t needed to pass the legislation.
Survivors of abuse and their supporters have pushed for the report’s release since November. That’s when the Maryland Attorney General’s Office announced it had completed a four-year investigation of the abuse and torture of more than 600 children and young adults in the nine-county Archdiocese of Baltimore.
But the report has been held up by objections from people employed by the church who are named in the document. A Baltimore judge indicated he wanted to release it — at least in a redacted form — in time for legislators to consider it while working on related bills during the 2023 General Assembly session.
After a hearing Tuesday on the legislation to end the statute of limitations, Kathleen Hoke, a University of Maryland Francis King Carey School of Law professor and longtime advocate of the bill, said it would become law regardless of when the report comes out.
“To me, at this point, this bill is going to pass,” she said.
Of opponents of the legislation, including Maryland Catholic Conference, Hoke said: “They wanted this not to happen and it’s happening, so they lose.”
Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee Chair Will Smith said in an interview after the Tuesday afternoon hearing that his “sense of it” is that the report has been returned to a Baltimore Circuit Court judge for a final review of its redactions before it’s released.
The Montgomery County Democrat anticipated the release will be “within days or the next few weeks” and before the legislature adjourns April 10. Regarding the timing of the report’s release and opponents of the legislation, Smith said that even the “specter of the report does not help their case.”
Attorney General Anthony Brown, a Democrat, said in an interview with The Baltimore Sun on Tuesday morning that his office was going through the “500-page report as expeditiously, thoroughly and accurately as possible.” He declined to say whether the court had received the redacted report for its final review.
“We’re doing everything we can to be thorough and expeditious,” he said.
[ Baltimore Sun coverage of Catholic Church abuse in Maryland ]
The House Judiciary Committee heard Senate Bill 686, also known as the Child Victims Act, on Tuesday. The House passed similar legislation in earlier years, but the bills stalled in the Senate. This year, the Senate passed its companion bill.
The Maryland Catholic Conference, which lobbies for the Baltimore archdiocese and others in the state, opposes the legislation as unconstitutional under Maryland law because it would open a “lookback” window for survivors to sue.
Maryland Policy & Politics
Brown told Smith in a letter earlier this year that he disagrees and that if the legislation becomes law, he would be comfortable defending it in court.
A spokesperson for the Catholic Conference could not be reached Tuesday.
The Senate amended the bill to allow the Maryland Supreme Court to determine the constitutionality of the law, if passed, before potential lawsuits are heard in a lower court.
The bill also was amended to set caps on awards from lawsuits. There would be a $1.5 million maximum penalty per instance for noneconomic damages, such as emotional hardship or other pain and suffering, for private institutions like the Catholic Church, and a cap of $890,000 for public institutions and municipalities, based on existing law regarding the liability of government institutions.
House Economic Matters Chair C.T. Wilson, a survivor of child sexual abuse and Democrat from Charles County, drafted the bill in his chamber as House Bill 1. He has shepherded such legislation for years.
Smith said he’s sure the legislation will reach the desk of Democratic Gov. Wes Moore regardless of time constraints.
“There’s a fail-safe plan, but, obviously, it’s C.T.’s bill and he’s been working really hard on it,” Smith said. “I’m just kind of an assistant.”