Childhood abuse bill stirs debate

Measure would allow 1-year term for victims to bring a civil suit

March 02, 2007|By Melissa Harris | Melissa Harris,sun reporter

Maryland senators heard tear-filled testimony yesterday in support of a bill that would establish a one-year period for childhood victims of sexual abuse, regardless of their age, to bring civil lawsuits against their perpetrators.

"Does anyone want to protect pedophiles?" asked sexual abuse victim Tom Dembeck, 50, of Cockeysville, as he stretched out his arms and turned to face a crowded audience before the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee.

Dembeck accused the proposal's opponents of aiding offenders.

In a letter to the committee, the Maryland Catholic Conference wrote that it had "deep concerns about the fundamental fairness and constitutionality of any retroactive change ... particularly one that would single out private institutions."

When priest abuse scandals first surfaced five years ago after a series of stories in The Boston Globe, Maryland had one of the most restrictive laws in the nation for civil lawsuits brought by adults alleging they were sexually abused as children.

In 2003, the Maryland General Assembly amended the law, extending the deadline from the victim's 21st to 25th birthday. Yesterday, however, victims said that they had been unable to go public with their trauma until many years later, fearing shame, embarrassment and repercussions from their peers and relatives.

Only after the scandal broke in Boston, several said, did they muster the courage.

"Until five years ago, I thought I was the sole victim of this perpetration," said Bob Russell, 50, who testified that his abuser was the same as Dembeck's -- Laurence Brett, a former priest and teacher who was at Calvert Hall College High School from the late 1960s to early 1970s.

Brett, who has been named in numerous sexual-abuse investigations across the country, has been sought by authorities in Maryland and elsewhere for years. He is believed to be in the Caribbean, according to an investigation by the Hartford Courant. Calvert Hall has said that at least 14 alumni have come forward with abuse allegations, according to a 2005 Sun article.

The bill, introduced by Sen. James Brochin, a Baltimore County Democrat, would remove any age limit for a yearlong window beginning Jan. 1, 2008. Damages in those cases would be capped at $250,000, according to an amendment Brochin circulated yesterday.

California lawmakers opened a similar one-year window in 2003. In doing so, about 800 new abuse cases against the Catholic Church were filed, according to the Associated Press.

Nationally, the weight of lawsuits has pushed several dioceses to file for bankruptcy. This week, the Diocese of San Diego became the fifth in the nation to do so, according to wire reports.

The Maryland Catholic Conference asked Dan Friedman, an attorney and expert on Maryland law, to render an opinion on the constitutionality of the proposal.

"In attempting to resurrect stale claims -- in some instances, extremely stale claims -- retroactivity would violate the vested rights of defendants, and the important policy reasons underlying statutes of limitations," Friedman wrote.

Sen. Jamie Raskin, a Montgomery County Democrat, repeatedly asked victims yesterday whether they believed the proposal would be unfair to the Catholic Church.

Unequivocally, the responses were no. Victims repeatedly referred to examples in which either they or their relatives had reported the abuse to unresponsive church authorities. Don Boys, a former Indiana legislator, testified that the problem is not the Catholic Church's alone and would also help victims of evangelical pastors.

This bill would be "an example of the highest form of justice," said Helen Daly, who said she was repeatedly abused by a Jesuit priest while in elementary school, and now splits her time between Texas and a family home in Towson. Daly said that her mother took those allegations to church authorities, but the family never filed a police report.

Russell said that if Brochin's bill passed, he would file a civil lawsuit against the church, not to win money but to open up the Baltimore Archdiocese to scrutiny.

"This is the least you could do to right a wrong," Russell told committee members. "It would allow the church's records to be opened up in a court of law. A civil suit allows us to see how deep the cover-up went."

melissa.harris@baltsun.com

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