After years of defeat, Senate committee gives near unanimous recommendation to move child sexual abuse bill to full chamber
As each Maryland senator with the Judicial Proceedings Committee cast their yes vote, David Lorenz cried and embraced his wife, Judy.
That’s because the committee voted 10-1 on Friday to advance a bill that would retroactively, as well as prospectively, repeal statutes of limitation on lawsuits by plaintiffs who claim they suffered child sexual abuse.
Lorenz, who pushed to get this legislation passed for 15 years, suffered abuse as a teenager when he attended a private school in Kentucky.
“I don’t get benefit from this bill one bit because my abuse took place in Kentucky. I have watched people come up here and testify. I know three of them who…passed away,” said Lorenz, the Maryland director of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, also called SNAP. “This will give survivors, vindication, validation, they get to tell their story.”
Senate Bill 686 sponsored by Sen. William C. Smith Jr. (D-Montgomery), who chairs the committee, would allow a victim to file a suit “at any time.” A few amendments were approved Thursday that include a liability cap at $890,000 against public institutions such as school boards, which was originally $850,000 in the bill. Smith said the changed was made to confirm with police reform legislation passed two years ago.
The liability limit for a single plaintiff increases to $1.5 million for claims against private institutions for non-economic damages such as pain and suffering. An amendment approved Thursday, Smith said, removes the cap for economic damages like therapy or medical treatment.
Lorenz and other advocates praised Smith and Del. C.T. Wilson (D-Charles), who pushed legislation in the House of Delegates for several years, for sponsoring the bills on behalf of survivors.
“First, thank C.T. Wilson because he’s been working with me on this. He’s been leading this effort for years,” Smith said. “I’m glad we’re able to provide this as a chance for access to justice for the survivors that have been denied so far.”
Smith said the bill could come to the Senate floor for debate early next week.
Legislation first passed in 2017 to increase the age limit by which victims of child sexual abuse needed to file claims from 25 to 38.
However, lawmakers have debated since 2019 whether it would be unconstitutional to repeal a statute of repose, which had been included in the law passed two years prior.
Kathleen Hoke, a University of Maryland professor who explained the legal concept of a statute of repose to lawmakers in January, hugged and cried with Lorenz and other supporters and survivors in the committee lobby Friday.
“I think the overarching thing is nobody even understood what a statute of repose even was, how there could even be one in cases of child sexual assault,” she said. “I don’t know that I shocked them, instead, maybe brought them to a level of comfort that they understand now. [Lawmakers] didn’t have to figure out the constitutional question. They just need to do what they thought was right from a public policy perspective.”
Sen. Chris West (R-Baltimore County) was the only senator on the committee to vote against the bill.
“I’m absolutely convinced that this bill is unconstitutional and will be so held by the Maryland Supreme Court,” he said.
In an advice letter last month, Maryland Attorney General Anthony Brown (D) wrote that he can “in good faith defend the legislation should it be challenged in court.”
On Friday afternoon, the Maryland Catholic Conference released a statement that it continues to oppose the legislation it calls “unconstitutional and unfair in its disparate treatment of victims of abuse.”
The conference noted that the Catholic Church in Maryland has provided millions of dollars in therapeutic counseling and direct financial payments to “victim-survivors.”
“The draconian provision of an unlimited window for currently time-barred civil cases to be filed, regardless of when they occurred, is nearly unprecedented among similar laws passed in other states,” according to the conference. “The legislation creates blatant disparity in its treatment of victims, with much lower monetary judgements available to victims of abuse in public institutions than those of abuse in private settings.”
The bill is being considered as the attorney general’s office prepares the release of a redacted 456-page report from a grand jury that found 600 victims of clergy sexual abuse in the state.
As for the House version of the bill, Wilson said it remains in the Judiciary Committee. He remains confident it will receive support by his House colleagues.
The House passed versions of Wilson’s legislation twice in the past several years but the measure has stalled in the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee.
“The House has been fine because the House is not a stalling point,” said Wilson, who’s been personally affected by child sexual abuse. “I hope that some way my pain and suffering helps others. I know when you come up here, the goal isn’t to be a king it’s to be a voice. I know a lot of folks feel they never have a voice, so I want them to know they’re not alone.”