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Maryland lawmakers consider bill allowing child sex abuse victims to sue at any age and any time

The Maryland State House in Annapolis, Maryland.
Matt Bush
The Maryland State House in Annapolis, Maryland.

Maryland lawmakers are examining whether to do away with the statute of limitations regarding child sexual abuse cases, which would allow victims to file lawsuits regardless of how long ago the abuse occurred.

Thanks to a 2017 law that raised the age, Maryland allows those who were sexually abused as children to file civil lawsuits until they turn 38 years old — 20 years after they officially become adults. Montgomery County Democratic Sen. Will Smith is sponsoring a measure to do away with that.

“The bill would eliminate the statute of limitations or repose for child sex abuse,” Smith told the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee, which he chairs, on Feb. 23. “It would create a permanent window for older victims. It would allow both public and private entities to be sued. It would eliminate the notice of claims deadlines for public entities in child sex abuse cases. And it caps the liability for public entities at $850,000 and private entities at $1.5 million.”

The lengthy hearing included testimony from many survivors of abuse within the Catholic Archdiocese of Baltimore — some of whom were featured in the 2017 Netflix documentary The Keepers, which focused on a priest who abused girls at Archbishop Keough High School, later named Seton Keough High School. The all-girls school closed in 2017. Last Friday, a judge ordered the full report into decades of abuse within the Archdiocese to be released to the public. The four-year long investigation by the Maryland Attorney General’s Office accused 158 priests of abusing more than 600 children over an 80-year period.

Smith’s bill would allow more victims to take legal action in the wake of the report, even though the names of those accused will be redacted. The only opposition to the bill during the hearing came from Carey Silverman of the American Tort Reform Association.

“Our concerns are with the complete elimination of the statute of limitations entirely in this bill,” Silverman told lawmakers. “That’s an unprecedented approach that’s not anywhere else in Maryland law.”

Silverman argued that statute of limitations exist for a reason.

“We have those statute of limitations, they may seem arbitrary, but they’re there so that judges and juries can decide and evaluate liability when we have the records available, when we have the evidence and the witnesses available to testify and come to the right conclusion on what occurred,” Silverman said. “It’s never easy to tell someone the time to sue has passed no matter what type of claim it is.”

Supporters of this major change to Maryland law got a boost — though not a full-throated one — from new Attorney General Anthony Brown. State Sen. Smith read from a letter he received from Brown that said the Attorney General could ‘in good faith’ defend the bill in court should it be approved by the General Assembly and the governor.

“Consequently, while it is possible that Senate bill 686’s retrospective reach to time-barred actions would be found unconstitutional, it is not a given outcome. It is an open question,” Smith read. “And in summary it is in our view that Senate bill 686 is not unconstitutional.”

In his letter, Brown cited a 1991 bill the General Assembly passed which essentially expanded the ability to bring suits for asbestos exposure, a law that still stands today.

Matt Bush spent 14 years in public radio prior to coming to WYPR as news director in October 2022. From 2008 to 2016, he worked at Washington D.C.’s NPR affiliate, WAMU, where he was the station’s Maryland reporter. He covered the Maryland General Assembly for six years (alongside several WYPR reporters in the statehouse radio bullpen) as well as both Montgomery and Prince George’s Counties. @MattBushMD
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