Catholic abuse survivors face long road, tough memories and constitutional challenges as they prepare to sue the Baltimore Archdiocese
It’s still about four months before victims of sexual abuse at the hands of the Baltimore Catholic Archdiocese will be able file civil suits against the church. However, the wheels are already in motion for what could be a monumental payout to survivors. Meanwhile, the Archdiocese is likely to drag out the suits by challenging the constitutionality of the cases and possibly bringing them to trial.
A recent Maryland Attorney General’s Office report implicated 156 priests and church employees in abusing at least 600 children over the last 80 years, but experts in the field and legal analysts think it could actually be thousands of people who suffered at the hands of the Archdiocese.
“The Archdiocese of Baltimore, is the first archdiocese in the new world,” said Suzanne Sangree, senior counsel with Grant and Eisenhofer, a firm representing victims in Maryland. “It certainly was the first cathedral here. And it's got enormous resources.”
The suits stem from a law passed in Maryland earlier this year that abolishes the statute of limitations on sex crimes for civil cases. However, the law doesn’t go into effect until Oct. 1.
The change in law has caught the eye of high-profile lawyers like Ben Crump, a civil rights lawyer who led George Floyd’s legal team and is now representing some survivors.
Payouts can be massive. Since 1994, 20 archdioceses and dioceses in the United States have come to settlements with victims totaling $1.2 billion.
The largest of those settlements were in places like Los Angeles, where more than 550 people were awarded $660 million, and in Boston, where another approximately 550 people settled for $85 million.
The process, however, can be grueling and painful for victims.
Del. C.T. Wilson (D-Charles County), spent years sponsoring the bill to remove the statute of limitations.
He said the Baltimore Archdiocese fought him at every turn; it was only this year that the law finally passed.
“The Catholic Church repeatedly talked about how they were trying to work with people, but then they would spend hundreds of thousands of dollars to get lobbying firms and to try to intimidate me,” Wilson said. “They had people reach out to me and other members. They threatened to take away any and all assistance that the Catholic church provides to Baltimore City. They did any and everything they could do to stop this bill from passing. And yet, at the same time, telling their own members they care about these victims. They don't.”
The Baltimore Archdiocese refused an interview request and would not provide a statement for this story. However, since the 1980s the Archdiocese has paid $13 million to 301 victims.
Now, victims and their lawyers are expecting a constitutional challenge to the law from the Church this fall.
The Church will likely use the statute of repose to sow doubt on the statute of limitations law.
Sangree says the legal tactic is used in construction work, and bars someone from suing a contractor for injuries from a building after a certain amount of time.
Wilson said that the ability for the Archdiocese to use the statute of repose was written into his bill in the last second without any discussion.
“Nobody knew that was in there,” he said. “I do not believe that that would be the right thing for the courts to interpret our intent differently than what we laid out in the four debates and arguments.”
If the law holds up after the constitutional challenge, Sangree and others say the Church will likely use its resources to bring cases to trial and drag out proceedings in order to pay less or intimidate victims who don’t feel comfortable testifying.
Elizabeth Letourneau, the director of the Moore Center for the Prevention of Child Sexual Abuse at Johns Hopkins University, said trails can bring up traumatic memories for those who are still processing their abuse.
Kit Bateman is one of those survivors who is still coming to terms with what happened to him. A priest locked him in a confessional room and tried to rape him when he was 14.
“They took my innocence, they took my soul, they took my ability to celebrate the life of Jesus every day like I liked to do, for 50 years it was gone,” Bateman said. He went from someone who was in the choir and served as an altar boy to shunning organized religion.
It was only recently that he publicly acknowledged his abuse and decided to sue the Church.
Bateman said he decided to bring suit when he saw the Archdiocese trying to defeat the law abolishing age limits on civil suits for sex crimes.
“When I saw that, I thought, ‘Wow, what about my soul that you all took from me when I was 14?’” he said. “That moment is when I realized Archbishop William Lori did not understand — for a man of God — does not understand repentance.”
People who are sexually abused as children have a thumb on the scale against them, Letourneau said.
“We know that child sexual abuse increases the risk for serious health problems, including mental health problems like post-traumatic stress disorder child sexual abuse takes a real financial toll on survivors, who over the course of their lives will earn nearly $300,000 less than people who did not experience child sexual abuse,” she said.
Letourneau said settlements can often help pay for therapy, make up for gaps in finances or add a sense of closure to the events that took place years ago.