State restricts lawsuits of sexual abuse victims

Civil claims must be filed before accuser turns 21

May 26, 2002|By Scott Shane | Scott Shane,SUN STAFF

Victims of sexual child abuse in Maryland face one of the most restrictive laws in the nation on civil lawsuits, one that prevents most adults who were molested as children from having their claims heard in court.

State law and appeals court decisions require that lawsuits be filed before the victim's 21st birthday, when many victims are still too traumatized by the abuse and its consequences to go public with an accusation. The clock starts ticking on the three-year statute of limitations as soon as the victim turns 18.

Legal experts say Maryland is among a dwindling minority of states that have not created exceptions in the civil statute of limitations for people who were abused as minors.

"Maryland's a backwater in that regard," said Douglas E. Beloof, director of the National Crime Victim Law Institute and a professor at Lewis and Clark Law School in Portland, Ore. "The unfairness of the statute of limitations in sexual child abuse cases has led most states to pass special provisions."

Advocates say civil suits are important not only to provide fair compensation for victims but to force reforms in institutions such as the Roman Catholic Church, which they say has failed to move quickly to stop abusive priests and teachers. But the lawsuits that are driving church reforms were filed in states such as Massachusetts, one of 39 that have changed laws to make it easier for adults to sue for abuse suffered as children.

Massachusetts, the epicenter of the current priest abuse scandal, permits filing suit within three years of the discovery that "an emotional or psychological injury" was caused by the abuse. Connecticut just raised the age limit to file a child abuse suit from 35 to 48, or 30 years after the victim turns 18.

Virginia allows lawsuits during a one-year window after the conclusion of a criminal prosecution for sexual child abuse - no matter how long ago the abuse occurred. New Jersey, Alaska and Maine have no limit.

To victims, said David G. Clohessy, national director of Survivors Network for Those Abused by Priests, Maryland's statute of limitations feels "arbitrary and capricious. ... It's hard to imagine Jesus saying, `I'd love to help you, but you're just too late.' It's contrary to everything the church stands for."

The victims' network has called on the church to endorse extending the time to file suit in Maryland and other states with similar laws. Clohessy, a school administrator in Missouri and an abuse victim, says that changing the law to permit people older than 21 to sue would actually protect children.

"It's not just a question of retribution or compensation," he said. "It's a question of prevention. If there's a good statute, people can say to the church, `You can leave [the priest] in the parish, but maybe you'd better not. Look at some of these civil judgments from around the country.'"

That view is shared by Maryland abuse victims who have been prevented from suing or whose lawsuits have been thrown out because of state law.

Elizabeth A. Murphy was raped repeatedly starting at age 11 by John J. Merzbacher, a teacher at her South Baltimore Catholic school. Pointing a gun at her, he threatened to kill her and her family if she ever told anyone. She was 34 when she found the courage to go public and file suit.

That was 13 years too late, the state's highest court ruled in 1997, upholding the dismissal of claims against Merzbacher and the archdiocese filed by Murphy and 13 other victims. Two judges dissented, with one calling the majority opinion "unconscionable," saying that it "allows Merzbacher to profit from the threats, violence and intimidation" he inflicted.

"The crueler and more intimidating the abuser is, the easier it is for the church to hide the abuse," Murphy said. "When you're 11 and someone holds a gun to your head, you believe their threat."

By contrast with civil law, Maryland criminal law has no statute of limitations for felonies. Merzbacher was convicted of raping Murphy and sentenced in 1995 to four concurrent life terms. But the prosecution occurred only after Murphy and others went to a lawyer to begin a lawsuit, and the dismissal of the lawsuits protected the Baltimore Archdiocese, also a defendant in the cases, from a potentially huge judgment.

Church officials say that even when victims are precluded from filing suit, the archdiocese in recent years has agreed to pay for their therapy. Murphy acknowledges that the archdiocese has paid about $25,000 in therapy bills for her.

"People are best served by being healed by counseling assistance and pastoral assistance and not so much by monetary judgments," said David W. Kinkopf, an attorney for the Baltimore Archdiocese. "Our focus has always been on the healing process."

In addition, says the Rev. J. Bruce Jarboe, director of clergy personnel for the archdiocese, officials can move to prevent future abuse whether or not lawsuits are possible.

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