Md. bills seek to lengthen limit on filing of sex-abuse civil suits

Current law requires victim to initiate action by age 21

February 09, 2003|By John Rivera | John Rivera,SUN STAFF

In the aftermath of the child sexual-abuse scandal in the Catholic Church, victims' advocates are pushing the Maryland General Assembly to lengthen the statute of limitations for filing civil suits against abusers.

Critics have long argued that Maryland's law, which requires a child who has been sexually abused to file suit by age 21, is too restrictive. Now they believe they have the impetus to make changes.

A bill sponsored by Del. Brian K. McHale, a Baltimore Democrat, would allow a sexual abuse victim to file a civil suit within a year after the resolution of a criminal case.

McHale said he drafted his bill because victims raped in the 1970s by Catholic Community School teacher John Merzbacher had their civil lawsuits dismissed, even though Merzbacher was convicted in 1995. Many of those victims are constitutents and friends, McHale said.

A much broader Senate bill, sponsored by Baltimore Democrat Delores G. Kelley, would extend the statute of limitations by more than a decade.

Kelley's bill would allow a victim to file suit until the age of 33. But if the victim did not know it was possible to bring a civil suit - in a case of repressed memory, for example - victims would have up to 12 years after the point at which they should have known legal action was possible.

Kelley introduced a similar bill as a delegate in 1994, but it died in committee.

"I thought it was needed then, and now everybody's consciousness has been raised," she said, referring to the widespread news media coverage of sexual abuse scandal in the Catholic Church. "All of us have necessarily lived through this saga. It became abundantly clear the trauma that these victims are suffering."

Richard J. Dowling, executive director of the Maryland Catholic Conference, said he was reserving comment on the bills until they come up for hearings.

"We're going to take a look at the bills, and we expect to be in dialogue with members of General Assembly in due course," he said.

Extending limits

If either bill should pass, Maryland would join at least three other states that have increased their statutes of limitations since the church's sex scandal made news a year ago.

Connecticut and Pennsylvania have increased the time limit for filing outright, while California opened a one-year window Jan. 1 that allows any victim to file a sexual abuse lawsuit, no matter when the offense occurred. Lawyers and church officials said they expect hundreds of lawsuits to be filed as a result.

Nationally, Catholic dioceses seem to be taking a "conflicted" approach to legislation that extends the window for filing sexual abuse lawsuits, said Douglas E. Beloof, director of the National Crime Victim Law Institute and a professor at Lewis and Clark Law School in Portland, Ore.

"In California, the church didn't go to the legislature and vehemently oppose it, but they're making noises they may challenge the constitutionality of the new legislation," Beloof said.

"The church doesn't seem to be embracing them [extension bills], but it seems to be very cautious about how it contests them," he said.

Advocates say some change in Maryland's law is needed because victims of child sexual abuse often cannot face the trauma for years afterward.

"The medical profession tells us, and we've seen particularly in the last year, that the shame and guilt that victims struggle through in their adult lives prevents reporting of these crimes until later in life," said Mark Serrano, a board member of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests who was abused by a priest as a child. "And so, that's got to be factored into any revision in law so victims can find healing and justice."

Backs one-year bill

Attorney Joanne L. Suder, perhaps the most visible sexual-abuse litigator in the state, said increasing the state's statute of limitations will simply bring Maryland into line with other states.

"Maryland is the worst victim's state in the country," she said.

Although Suder said that she prefers Kelley's far-reaching bill, she is advocating an amendment that would open a one-year window for lawsuits similar to California's

"Everyone seems to like the idea of my bill, the one-year bill, because it sets a time frame and gets everything on the table at one time," she said. "I think that's the simplest solution that's going to satisfy everyone who was harmed."

Sun staff writer David Nitkin contributed to this article.

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