ANNAPOLIS – Although he said he understands concerns raised by the Catholic Church that House Bill 858 could devastate parishes, schools and church outreach ministries, one of the cosponsors of a state bill lifting the statute of limitations on child sex abuse civil cases still favors it because he is a “believer in victims’ rights,” he said.
In a Feb. 18 interview with The Catholic Review, Del. Steven DeBoy of Baltimore County said the measure is needed because it isn’t right to put a time frame on when abuse victims can step forward to receive cash settlements.
Current law allows abuse victims to pursue civil lawsuits until age 25. The proposed law would effectively lift the statute of limitations, creating a one-year window during which individuals claiming to be sexually abused as children could file civil suits against the perpetrator and private institutions such as dioceses, parishes and schools regardless of how long ago the alleged abuse occurred.
“I believe that we can’t put a time frame on what somebody feels they need to be healed by,” said Del. DeBoy, noting that some people may not be ready to address abuse until they are well past age 25.
Sean Caine, archdiocesan spokesman, said Maryland law requires prompt reporting of child abuse for a reason: “It enables law enforcement to make immediate contact with the perpetrator which will protect children and for much-needed counseling assistance to be offered to the victim as soon as possible after the abuse,” he said.
“Our legislators should not be supporting legislation that discourages the prompt reporting of child abuse,” he said.
Mr. Caine pointed out that in 2003 the Maryland General Assembly extended the time frame for victims of child sexual abuse to file civil claims from age 21 to 25. He emphasized that child sexual abuse is a felony in Maryland and there are no time limits on when someone can be prosecuted for committing a felony in Maryland, and thus the bill only relates to lawsuits for monetary damages.
“Statutes of limitations exist to ensure fairness,” he said. “They were crafted to protect the interest of all parties. They ensure that witnesses are available, memories are fresh and documents are intact.”
Del. DeBoy said he is aware of the ways the Archdiocese of Baltimore reaches out to abuse victims by providing financial support for counseling to victims and their families. He said the “beginning of healing” came when Cardinal William H. Keeler released the names of clergy credibly accused of abuse. He is not trying to bankrupt the church, he said.
Mr. Caine said the archdiocese shares Del. DeBoy’s sympathy toward victims.
“However, forcing today’s church to pay millions of dollars to some victims and their lawyers for decades-old cases is not an appropriate response,” he said, noting that other dioceses have been devastated by similar legislation. To date, the church in the United States has been forced to pay $1.8 billion to victims, with an estimated $720 million of that going to trial lawyers, he said. Dioceses have been forced to sell assets and severely cut back or eliminate important ministries.
Mr. Caine said the church in Baltimore already provides “generous assistance to victims.”
“The statute of limitations has never been a bar to victims receiving that assistance,” he said.
There are elements of the bill that Del. DeBoy said he would like to see changed – especially the disparity between private and public institutions.
Under current law, a claim against a local school board is limited to $100,000 in damages, and a child abuse victim who seeks to file a civil action against a county or municipality must give notice of the suit within six months. While the bill does not address those provisions, it creates a $1 million cap for child abuse victims seeking damages from private institutions like the church.
“I do think that the economic caps gap is unfair,” said Del. DeBoy. “It’s too wide. We shouldn’t be penalizing the private institutions at a higher level and the public institutions at a lower level.”
Del. DeBoy said he believed amendments to the bill are needed to make it fairer. He personally will not offer those amendments, he said, but he expects others to introduce them.
“Either the $1 million comes down to the $100,000, or the $100,000 goes up to the $1 million,” he said.
Mr. Caine pointed out that half of the lawsuits filed against the Diocese of San Diego were against dead priests. Asked about the fairness of allowing decades-old claims to be brought against people who are dead and cannot defend themselves, Del. DeBoy said, “That’s a fair and legitimate argument.”
For the second consecutive week, Del. Eric Bromwell of Baltimore County, chief sponsor of the legislation, did not respond to repeated requests for an interview with The Catholic Review.