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Key Maryland Senate leader to co-sponsor bill to end time limit for filing child sex abuse lawsuits

Baltimore Sun 1/17/2023 Hannah Gaskill, Baltimore Sun
State Sen. Will C. Smith in the Maryland Senate at the State House in Annapolis in 2022. © Amy Davis/Baltimore Sun/TNS State Sen. Will C. Smith in the Maryland Senate at the State House in Annapolis in 2022.

The chair of a powerful state Senate committee will sponsor his chamber’s version of a bill to end a statute of limitations on child sex abuse lawsuits, giving a boost to legislation abuse survivors have been pushing for years.

The decision announced Tuesday by Democratic Sen. Will Smith of Montgomery County, chair of the Judicial Proceedings Committee, improves the legislation’s chance of getting passed this year in the General Assembly.

Senate President Bill Ferguson said Tuesday that he’s hopeful that Smith’s sponsorship is “an indication that there’s likely something moving this year.”

“We had to do it thoughtfully,” Ferguson said. “But I imagine that will progress sooner than later.”

Public pressure has mounted for lawmakers to take action in the wake of a report by Office of the Maryland Attorney General into abuse and its cover-up in the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Baltimore going back eight decades. The report has not yet been released publicly.

“With a keen understanding of the constitutional and legal complexities presented by this issue, it is incumbent upon us as policymakers to ensure that victims of child sexual abuse have access to civil justice,” Smith told The Baltimore Sun via text.

In three previous sessions, the House has passed a bill sponsored by Economic Matters Committee Chair C.T. Wilson, himself a survivor of childhood sexual abuse. But the legislation has never made it to the Senate floor for a vote, faltering instead in the Judicial Proceedings Committee.

Wilson, who has taken the lead on ushering the bill through the legislature this session, said in an interview Tuesday that he believes having Smith’s support “can only help.”

“I am grateful to him for stepping up to be an additional voice for our victims and survivors,” Wilson said. “They need all the help that they can get.”

Smith called Wilson, who filed the House version of the bill before the 2023 legislative session began last week, a “brave and tenacious champion for the needs of survivors” and said he is proud to support him in his effort to address this issue.

Under current law, survivors of child sexual abuse can pursue lawsuits until they turn 38 or within three years of their abuser’s conviction in criminal court. Smith said the legislation would eradicate those limitations, allowing survivors of any age to sue.

Additionally, the legislation would do away with caps on damages from state and local government, including caps put in place by local boards of education, and allow survivors to collect up to $850,000. The current cap is $400,000.

For private institutions, including the Catholic Church, the cap for offenses that occurred before the law went into effect would be $1.5 million, although Smith said that provision still could be altered. Survivors suing private institutions for offenses that occur after the bill goes into effect would not have a cap.

He said lawmakers are “working out the finer details” of the bill.

Wilson’s legislation has been strongly supported by people abused by Catholic priests, many of whom are too old to be able to file lawsuits against the church.

David Lorenz, the director of the Maryland chapter of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, said he is “absolutely thrilled” to hear of Smith’s decision to take up the bill.

Smith’s committee has scheduled a briefing for 1 p.m. Thursday in Annapolis on child sexual abuse prevention and the existing statute of limitations.

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