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Maryland Court Rules Against Catholic Church, Finds Child Victims Act is Constitutional

— March 6, 2024

The Archdiocese of Washington had earlier argued that legislators broke the law when they removed limitations on the rights of child sex abuse survivors to file claims against perpetrators and enablers.

A Prince George’s County court recently ruled against the Catholic Archdiocese of Washington, which had filed a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of the Maryland Child Victims Act.

According to The Baltimore Sun, on Wednesday, Circuit Judge Robin D. Gill Bright oversaw a protracted round of morning arguments between the archdiocese and the state. Hours later, Bright issued a decision finding that the Child Victims Act, in its current form, is constitutional—a determination that seems likely to prompt an immediate appeal from the Catholic church.

In a statement, the Archdiocese of Washington said that it would petition an appeals court for reconsideration of the ruling, which permits a class-action child sex abuse lawsuit to proceed under the Child Victims Act.

“The important constitutional principles in this case are not unique to the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Washington and are at issue in the cases filed against public entitles, private schools, and secular and religious organizations across the state,” it said in a statement. “The archdiocese will pursue an immediate appeal of today’s decision.”

The archdiocese emphasized that, no matter how the case might end, it is committed to its “longstanding efforts to bring healing to survivors through pastoral care and other forms of assistance that are available apart from the legal process.”

The Sun notes that the Child Victims Act, which took effect last October, waives statutes of repose and limitations on litigation involving alleged child sex abuse. Under the act, survivors may file claims against either individual perpetrators or institutional facilitators, irrespective of how much time has passed.

Richard Cleary, an attorney for the archdiocese, had argued that the state cannot legally enforce a retroactive rescission of statutes of limitations.

Photo by Ivan Samkov from Pexels

“It is our position that the law is unconstitutional and cannot be enforced,” Cleary said.

Cleary also claimed that a 2017 legislative act codified a statute of repose relevant to civil claims—a more stringent form of limitation, which deprives victims of any right to sue an allegedly at-fault party beyond a certain deadline.

Unlike statutes of limitations, statutes of response may expire even before an injury or cause of injury is assessed.

“Once a repose period expires, the defendant has a substantive right to be free of that cause of action,” Cleary said.

However, Gill Bright rejected Cleary’s arguments, finding it implausible that the legislature’s 2017 act intended to curtail child sex abuse victims’ rights to pursue claims against perpetrators and enablers.

Survivors, and their attorneys, have already celebrated the ruling.

“It’s a great day for survivors of sexual abuse in Maryland, because they’ve been waiting decades to bring such claims,” said Jonathon Schochor, a lawyer representing many of the plaintiffs.

NBC-Washington writes that several survivors—including Jean Hargadon Wehner—were in attendance at Wednesday’s hearing.

“As a survivor who started remembering years after the abuse, […] I can attest to how long it took for me to be able to talk about it, to bring it to anyone,” Hargadon Wehner said. “There should be no statute of limitations for this crime.”

The Baltimore Sun notes that, while the Office of the Maryland Attorney General did not participate in the hearing, it had earlier submitted a brief supporting survivors’ argument that the Child Victims Act is constitutional.

“The General Assembly has broad authority to modify time restrictions for filing lawsuits, and the archdiocese cites no case in which a Maryland court has found the General Assembly to have exceeded that authority,” the state wrote. “Further, there is no basis to conclude that the General Assembly ever intended to create a ‘vested right’ for the enablers of child sex abuse to avoid all civil liability for their actions.”


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