Shielded from pain

March 03, 2003

THE STIGMA and shame of child sexual abuse typically haunt victims through their lives, compromising not only their emotional health but their ability to seek help or fight back. Sadly, by the time some reconcile their pain and try to move on as adults, they discover some avenues for legal redress are blocked: Maryland law says they should have come forward when they were very much younger.

Victims and children's advocates have long said Maryland's time limit on bringing a civil claim benefits the abuser instead of helping the abused seek justice. But the political climate for bolstering child abuse protections and aiding victims didn't exist until revelations that Catholic church leaders nationwide failed to act when they had the chance to stop predatory priests -- and in many cases protected them or knowingly transferred them from church to church where they continued to do harm.

Since then, California has suspended its statute of limitations for a year to give victims a chance to sue institutions that protected abusers. And at least 39 states have eased their time limits, recognizing that the trauma of abuse lingers into adulthood.

Two proposals now are before the Maryland General Assembly.

State Sen. Delores G. Kelley and several colleagues have proposed giving victims of child sexual abuse until at least their 33rd birthday to file a civil suit against alleged abusers. Under current state law, victims have until they turn 21.

Child abuse victims would have one year after a criminal trial to file a civil claim, under a proposal sponsored by state Del. Brian K. McHale and others. As Maryland has no statute of limitations on felonies, this would extend to older survivors of abuse a way to seek redress. It would also serve as a limit on suits claiming long-ago abuse, because very likely, only the strongest cases would be prosecuted under criminal law.

Some advocates feel the proposals are compatible; either, or a combination of them, would be a step in the right direction.

Many institutions would be affected; among the most vocal in opposition has been the Roman Catholic Church.

The Baltimore diocese revealed last September that it had spent $5.6 million over 20 years on settlements, counseling for victims, treatment for accused priests and other expenses related to abuse cases.

And while the church in Baltimore has made commendable progress at reforms, it often has been shielded from litigation by the Maryland time limit. Church leaders are right to be worried that they may face potentially costly suits if the law changes.

But that should not be lawmakers' primary concern:

They must focus on the needs of citizens who find the road to justice blocked. This is legislators' opportunity to ensure that public accountability for child abuse is attainable so that it becomes another deterrent to this horrible crime.

The state's highest court has said that only the General Assembly can make it possible for many of these victims to have their day in court. They've waited a long time. The state should give it to them.

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