Survivors of Child Sexual Abuse in Maryland Can Bring Their Claims at Any Time, Judge Rules

March 13, 2024
Sarah E. Nesbitt

In a class suit brought by victims of sexual abuse against the Archdiocese of Washington, Judge Robin D. Gill Bright in Prince George’s County, Maryland, ruled that the state’s statute removing any time limitations for survivors of childhood sexual abuse to file civil lawsuits is constitutional.  The decision in John Doe, et al. v. Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Washington, No. C-16-CV-23-004497 (Md. Cir. Ct. Mar. 6, 2024), addressed the Archdiocese’s argument that the abolition of any statute of limitations for such claims violated its right to due process.  The Archdiocese has indicated it will immediately appeal this ruling, and experts believe the case is likely to make it to the Maryland Supreme Court before the end of the year.  In the interim, however, the law remains intact, allowing much-needed access to justice for survivors of childhood sexual trauma in Maryland.

On October 1, 2023, Maryland’s Child Victims Act (the “CVA”) went into effect, allowing anyone who was sexually abused as a child to file a civil lawsuit in Maryland against the individuals and institutions that abused them, regardless of when the abuse occurred.  In other words, the law removed the deadlines—known in the legal system as statutes of limitations—for such claims.  The CVA also provides that survivors who prevail in their lawsuits may recover up to $1.5 million in cases against private institutions and up to $890,000 in cases against public institutions.  A number of states have passed what are called “look-back” windows that give survivors of sexual abuse a certain amount of time to pursue claims previously barred by a statute of limitations.  Maryland’s CVA is one of the first to create an indefinite period for looking back to assert claims of sexual abuse.

The John Doe case in which Judge Bright ruled is a class action by a group of men who survived sexual abuse by Catholic priests, deacons, and other employees of the Archdiocese of Washington, which includes several Maryland counties.  Though this case seeks remedies for abuse by members of the clergy, the CVA opens the door to lawsuits for sexual abuse by any individual or institution.

Prior to the 2023 enactment of the CVA, survivors of child sexual abuse in Maryland had to file a lawsuit against perpetrators and non-perpetrator institutions that harbored the perpetrators (such as the Archdiocese in this cases) by their 38th birthday or else their claims expired.  This limitation was contained in a 2017 state law that created a special limitations period for victims of childhood abuse, but required that they take legal action within 20 years of reaching the age of 18.  Advocates for survivors made extensive efforts to educate the Maryland legislature on research showing that many survivors of childhood sexual abuse take until well beyond their 38th birthday to come to terms with their trauma and decide to take the step of pursuing legal accountability.  In fact, the average age of disclosure of such childhood abuse is 52.  The Maryland attorney general’s office also released a report in spring 2023 documenting the results of a four-year investigation of child sexual abuse in the Archdiocese of Baltimore, giving color to the importance of the CVA by showing the extent of the rampant abuse that was no longer legally actionable due to the passage of time.  Despite the Catholic Church’s ardent efforts to stymie the CVA, which it correctly projected would subject it to serious liability, the measure passed, but only after the addition of a provision allowing for a mid-lawsuit appeal as to the law’s constitutionality.  It is pursuant to this procedure that the Archdiocese is now appealing Judge Bright’s decision.

The crux of the Archdiocese’s argument about the constitutionality of the CVA is quite technical: it argues that the state’s 2017 legislation dictating that a survivor’s civil claims against non-perpetrator defendants expired after a survivor’s 38th birthday was a “statute of repose,” rather than a statute of limitations.  A statute of repose is a law that bars claims after a certain time period following some action by the defendant, such as the completion of a construction project or the distribution of a defective product, even if the plaintiff has not yet been injured.  This contrasts with a statute of limitations, for which the expiration clock starts ticking only after a plaintiff is injured.  While statutes of limitations exist for most claims, statutes of repose are much rarer.  In fact, Maryland has only one, and it limits claims in the construction industry.

The Archdiocese contends that the 2017 statute of repose created a legal right for non-perpetrator defendants, ensuring that they were no longer subject to civil liability after a survivor’s 38th birthday—and that that right cannot be repealed without violating the constitutional right to due process.  Survivor advocates and the State of Maryland retort that the 2017 law was a statute of limitations, which the legislature has the discretion to modify, rather than a statute of repose.  They contend this is clear because the 2017 law made the clock for claims start ticking after injury, not an action by the defendant, which is the essence of a statute of limitations.  But even if the 2017 law were a statute of repose, the survivors’ attorneys argue, the legislature may also modify a statute of repose, and while the Archdiocese may have business interests in blocking the CVA, that does not make the law unconstitutional.

In her March 6 ruling, Judge Bright sided with survivors and the State of Maryland, finding that “the interest in having a statute of repose does not apply in this case.”  She also remarked that the Maryland legislature did not intend “to protect sexual abusers.”

While the appeal is pending, the CVA remains on the books and is considered good law.  If you are a survivor of sexual abuse in Maryland and would like to explore possible claims, consider reaching out to the experienced attorneys of Katz Banks Kumin.

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