The Maryland General Assembly is getting closer to passing a bill that would remove the expiration date for survivors to file civil suits for child sexual abuse.
The Child Victims Act repeals the statute of limitations — the time limit someone has to come forward with legal proceedings following an event — so child sexual abuse victims can sue their perpetrators whenever they are ready to come forward.
The state Senate version of the bill, sponsored by Sen. Will Smith, a Democrat from Montgomery County and the chair of the Senate judicial proceedings committee, passed out of the chamber on Thursday. It will now head to the House of Delegates where similar versions of the bill have passed in previous years. Gov. Wes Moore supports the legislation.
In 2017, one version of the legislation passed both chambers. The bill, sponsored by Del. C.T. Wilson and the result of a compromise with the Roman Catholic Church, increased the age limit someone could file civil suits for child sexual abuse from 25 to 38.
David Lorenz, the Maryland director of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, has been fighting for the bill since 2007. He said he feels optimistic about the bill’s passage this session, noting the Senate committee has been the biggest hurdle in past years.
The bill won’t legally impact Lorenz because the abuse he suffered occurred outside of Maryland, but it will help other survivors, he said. Most survivors of child sexual abuse don’t come forward with their stories until they are well into their adult lives, according to a study from CHILD USA, a child protection think tank.
“It gives a sense of justice to survivors,” Lorenz said. “It exposes hidden predators among us.”
Wilson, who has come forward with his story of being sexually abused as a child and is the sponsor of the House’s version of the Child Victims Act, explained the statute of limitations forces survivors to come forward with their stories on another person’s time.
“There’s really nobody speaking out for those victims and survivors of child sex abuse,” Wilson said. “The only reason I even told my personal story to begin with is because I don’t want people to feel that they’re by themselves.”
Throughout Lorenz and Wilson’s years of advocacy for the Child Victims Act, they have faced one primary opponent: the Catholic Church.
Following the bill passing out of the Senate judicial proceedings committee Friday, the Maryland Catholic Conference — the Catholic Church’s state lobbying arm — said “unconstitutional and unfair in its disparate treatment of victims of abuse.” The group claims the legislation is unfair because it sets a higher liability cap against private institutions than public ones.
Maryland Attorney General Anthony Brown said he is prepared to defend the bill if it’s challenged in court.
One amendment to Smith’s bill would speed up the process to determine if the bill is unconstitutional.
The office of former Attorney General Brian Frosh concluded in 2019 that a bill like the Child Victims Act would “most likely be found unconstitutional.”
Later that year, Frosh began investigating clergy sexual abuse in Maryland. Now, Brown’s office is preparing for the release of a report on sexual abuse within the Archdiocese of Baltimore.
This redacted 456-page report will detail the extent of clergy sexual abuse and the Catholic Church’s coverup of it in Maryland. The attorney general’s office identified more than 600 victims during its investigation.
“It’s also going to give people vindication,” Lorenz said. “It’s still hard to read.”
He said he encourages survivors to contact support groups for help.
“[The Catholic Church is] still fighting this legislation instead of supporting it. They treat victims as the enemy instead of their ally, which we should be,” Lorenz said. “They’ve always treated us as if we are trying to take something away from them, when, in fact, it is them that took our innocence and our childhood and our soul away.”