Del. C.T. Wilson (D-Charles) has withdrawn a bill to eliminate the statute of limitations for child sex abuse survivors to pursue civil lawsuits, citing the bill’s fraught legislative history and concerns for the mental welfare of abuse victims who would’ve testified.
The bill was scheduled for a hearing in the House Judiciary Committee last week, though that was canceled when Wilson withdrew the legislation.
Wilson, himself a survivor of child sexual abuse, said part of his rationale for pulling the bill this year is that he doesn’t want anyone to suffer alone.
“The thing about mental illness is it’s doubly bad when you’re alone,” Wilson said. “And I know that all the people that were going to come and testify on my bill were going to be doing so through Zoom, and they were going to be alone, many of them, and they’re going to rip their emotions and their scars wide open, and many of them will have nobody to help put themselves back together.”
This is Wilson’s third introduction of the bill, and during each bill hearing, the House Judiciary Committee room has been packed with adult survivors of child sexual abuse who find comfort in each other after revealing the darkest parts of themselves to the public. And Wilson has been there, spending hours with witnesses after they testify to help hold their pieces together.
“The whole reason I started this fight was to let people know they’re not alone, and I did not want my bill to go like that, even if, by some grace of God, it gets passed and my name is not on it,” he said.
Wilson said he had a difficult time withdrawing the bill from the House Judiciary Committee.
“People were not going to let me withdraw it,” he told Maryland Matters in a phone interview. “But … I had explained to [House Judiciary Committee Chairman Luke H. Clippinger (D-Baltimore City)] that my main reason for withdrawing … was that this is a very unique time in our nation’s history as far as how we’re doing things.”
Past versions of the bill have made headway in the House, passing unanimously in 2020 and on a margin of 135-3 in 2019, but those measures stalled in the Senate.
In a phone interview with Maryland Matters, Sen. Shelly L. Hettleman (D-Baltimore County), the bill’s Senate sponsor, gave Wilson an “enormous amount of credit” for continuing to bring the bill forward each year, and said that being separated from survivors who planned to testify “was of utmost concern to him” in the decision to withdraw.
But Hettleman also pointed to the media, Maryland Matters, specifically, for having “made him the issue.”
“And I think he’s not the issue and he shouldn’t be the issue,” Hettleman said. “The issue is whether we as a state are going to allow survivors of child sex abuse an opportunity to hold their abusers accountable.”
Hettleman’s bill remains alive but has yet to be voted out of the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee, where it faces tough prospects. Supporters of the legislation plan to hold a rally on Lawyers Mall, outside the State House, on Wednesday morning.
Irrespective of any news reports, the bill had a rough hearing in the Judicial Proceedings Committee last month, leading Wilson to believe that his “personality was being a distraction.”
He said that removing his name from the bill may be the only hope of getting it passed this session.
“It was really more about me, which I thought, again, is very distracting to the rights of the survivors and victims and trying to basically, you know, weed out the predators,” he told Maryland Matters. “So I thought that maybe if my name wasn’t in the bill — if it wasn’t CT Wilson’s bill — the Senate could finally focus on the merits instead of personal attacks, which several colleagues … seem to be extraordinarily good at.”
During last month’s hearing, Sen. Robert G. Cassilly (R-Harford) and Senate Minority Whip Michael J. Hough (R-Frederick) were harshly critical of Wilson, who had successfully sponsored legislation in 2017 to raise the statute of limitations for child sexual abuse survivors to pursue civil actions against their offenders from 25 to 38-years-old.
Wilson said that to make sure that the 2017 legislation passed, he, former Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr.’s Office and former House Judiciary Committee Chairman Joseph F. Vallario Jr. (D-Prince George’s) entered into negotiations with the Catholic Church to amend the bill.
The lawmakers had struck a deal with the church that inserted a statute of repose into the bill, prohibiting survivors from suing any entity that didn’t commit the alleged crime once they turned 38-years-old. In other words, employers would not be legally responsible for financial damages after the statute of repose was met.
In a February interview with Maryland Matters, Wilson called this “the biggest mistake of [his] life.”
Comparing his experience with the church to “negotiating with the devil,” he said he didn’t know that provision had made it into the final iteration of the bill and would have opposed it if he had.
During the February hearing, Hough could not grasp how Wilson misconstrued the meaning of the statute of repose in the 2017 bill and quoted Wilson’s testimony before the House Judiciary Committee:
“He went to the House Judiciary Committee, he sat there [with] the Catholic Conference and he said ‘I’ve given my word as part of an agreement that when this bill becomes law, I will not come back to the well,’” Hough read. “‘I won’t petition for anything. I won’t try to improve the bill. The agreement as it is, I take it. The agreement is take it as it is, and that is what I plan on doing.’ And he said, ‘I’m very grateful to the church.’”
Cassilly was no kinder, suggesting during a debate with Kathleen Hoke, a professor at the University of Maryland Carey School of Law and one of the bill’s supporting witnesses, that Wilson’s promise not to bring another bill back was “a blatant lie.”
“I know some people think we’re stupid, but that really sounds like you’re not giving us any credit — that we would say, ‘Oh gosh, I knew I was depriving the guys 10 years out, but hey, I never thought I was depriving the people 40 years out,” he said.
Hoke responded that no one was under the impression that the 2017 bill offered retroactivity, but that advocates thought that they could come back to “to fight another day.”
“So when CT Wilson said ‘we’re not coming back,’ then that was just a blatant lie,” Cassilly responded, “because he knew he was coming back and that’s why this matters.”
Wilson told Maryland Matters on Monday that Hough and Cassilly may be able to “be decent colleagues for once” now that the bill solely belongs to Hettleman.
Asked if he will pass the bill on to another lawmaker next session if it fails this year, Wilson said “hell no.”
“I will never stop fighting,” he said. “I don’t mind the ‘poison pill’ thing — it is what it is — but if I back away and this still doesn’t pass, I’m jumping right back in.”
Wilson said that it’s time for senators to own their votes, and that he wants retribution for the “nasty” things they say.
“So I will continue this,” he said. “I am not going to make their lives any easier; if they want to be nasty I’m gonna give them all the room to be nasty.”
To Wilson, empathy goes a long way.
His message to the Senate: “Why would you be surprised that I’m the asshole that I am? Look what I went through. Why would you be surprised that I’m angry about this issue and I do take it personally? Look what I went through,” Wilson said. “I may not be the nicest person — and I know that’s my reputation — but when you see what I’ve gone through, what else would you expect?”
Editor’s note: This story has been updated to more explicitly note that the Senate version of the legislation is still alive, to mention a rally bill supporters organized, and to clarify one quote of Sen. Cassilly’s.