THE NEWSPAPER ad seeks sexual abuse victims who are mistreated by a church or parish member. "You may be entitled to compensation," it reads. Baltimore lawyer Robert Feinberg admits he's looking to cash in on the church sexual abuse scandal: "For every wrong there ought to be a right."
Think what you will about Mr. Feinberg's entrepreneurial spirit. But his pitch about righting wrongs is particularly relevant as the shameful secret of the Catholic Church continues to be exposed in parishes across the country. Clergy who sexually prey on children have cost dioceses millions of dollars in settlements to abuse victims.
In Maryland, however, another reality exists. What Mr. Feinberg's ad neglects to mention is that adult survivors of child sexual abuse have little chance of pressing their claims for the trauma of years past.
State law requires the filing of a civil legal claim within three years of the victim's reaching age 18. That applies to all civil claims. But many victims of child sexual abuse are at a distinct disadvantage. The stigma and shame associated with the abuse often keep victims silent until they are adults and, usually, much older than 21.
Should an adult survivor of abuse be denied the right to seek redress because of the emotional fallout of the abuse? Can a 21-year-old be expected to possess the maturity and psychological fortitude to take on his abuser and the church?
Prescribing the time in which a lawsuit can be filed makes sense: to preclude the vagaries of time (lost evidence, hazy memories, dead witnesses) from compromising a person's ability to defend himself.
But the limitation in this unique circumstance can end up rewarding the defendant at the expense of the victim. And increasingly, more states -- 39 in fact -- have recognized the need to ease restrictions on filing these claims.
Maryland lawmakers last debated this issue in 1994, when a legislative committee killed a bill that would have given child sex abuse victims until age 33 to file a civil claim. Since then, the state's highest court has said the responsibility for changing the law rests solely with the General Assembly.
But the current scandal -- especially the role of the church in enabling predatory priests to abuse again -- demands another look at the civil limitations. Two South Baltimore lawmakers and Sen. Delores G. Kelley, the sponsor of the 1994 bill, each are considering new legislation that would create an exception to the time requirement.
They and their colleagues should explore the experience of other states to find the right balance for Maryland. Following New Jersey, which has no limit, is too far-reaching. Connecticut left the door open for a victim to file a child abuse lawsuit until age 48. Virginia twinned its limit to the criminal prosecution of a child sexual abuse case -- the victim has one year after trial to file a civil claim, regardless of the verdict. Lawmakers might link an exception to the commission of an intentional act that constitutes a crime.
In recent years, outrageously high jury awards for bizarre happenings (like excruciatingly hot, spilled coffee) and exorbitant medical malpractice premiums have predisposed many lawmakers, Marylanders included, to find ways to dampen the litigious fervor in this country. And that is understandable.
But victims of child sexual abuse have suffered an egregious wrong that often has dire consequences in their adult lives.
In the classical tradition, justice requires that a person be given his due. That tradition demands that the wrongs of child sexual abuse be addressed with more than apologies and paid therapy bills.