Proposed Statute of Limitations Increase
Bill lets child-abuse victims sue until 50
Daily Record Legal Affairs Writer
February 5, 2009 6:45 PM
ANNAPOLIS — Saying child-abuse victims are often not ready to confront their attackers until middle age, a senator on Thursday urged her fellow lawmakers to raise from 25 to 50 the age by which a person may sue his or her abuser.
“Ideally, there shouldn’t be a statute of limitations for a crime such as this,” Sen. Delores G. Kelley told the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee. But Kelley said 50 was an appropriate age limit because victims of abuse, until they themselves are well into adulthood, cannot “muster the courage, the emotional ability” to confront their attackers, let alone take them to court.
Kelley’s proposal, Senate Bill 238, comes six years after the General Assembly raised the statute of limitations for child-abuse litigation from age 21 to 25, also at the Baltimore County Democrat’s urging.
Since that increase, victims and mental-health professionals have told Kelley that 25 is still too young because abuse victims need more time to understand and confront the source of their chronic depression, problems with intimacy, alcoholism and inability to hold down a job, she said.
“Their innocence was stolen,” Kelley said of the victims. Requiring them to sue by age 25 is “far too short” a deadline, leaving the victims with no opportunity to seek a financial remedy from their attackers in court.
“For the victims to be denied [their day in court] would be ungodly,” Kelley said.
She added that enabling victims to sue until age 50 could curtail childhood sexual abuse by forcing would-be abusers to consider the consequences of their actions.
“It helps children if perpetrators know that the [courthouse] door isn’t going to close for a long time,” she said.
The proposed legislation also would benefit victims between the ages of 25 and 50, whose claims are barred by the current statute of limitations. The measure, if passed, would give these victims a deadline of Jan. 1, 2012, to sue.
The proposed 25-year increase to the limitations period has drawn opposition from Catholic groups, who voiced concern that the additional time to sue could leave the church potentially facing litigation for years to come against allegations that are decades old and, thus, not easily defended against.
“The bill removes the right of an entity to access recent evidence, fresh memories of witnesses and other appropriate means to defend against civil claims,” the Maryland Catholic Conference told the committee in a prepared statement.
Kelley responded that her bill is meant to enable abuse victims to seek compensation from their attackers, not the institutions for which they worked.
But Sen. Brian E. Frosh, D-Montgomery, who chairs the committee, expressed concern about a potential 25-year increase to what he said is already the longest statute of limitations for a civil offense under Maryland law.
“It’s a complicated issue,” he said, referring to the appropriate way to compensate victims of childhood sexual abuse. But “it is difficult to defend against old actions,” he added.
The Catholic Church has acknowledged that sexual abuse by priests has occurred and that the church has settled many of those cases, even when the alleged offenses occurred decades earlier, the conference’s statement said.
It told the committee that the fight against child abuse would be better waged the way the church is fighting it: by requiring all employees and volunteers to undergo criminal background checks and training, and by paying for and providing counseling for victims. Conference members include the Archdiocese of Baltimore, the Archdiocese of Washington and the Diocese of Wilmington.
But Paul Livingston, who said he was sodomized by an adult when he was about 6, told the committee that counseling is not enough. He told the committee that he did not come to grips with the abuse until after his daughter was born in 2002, when he was in his mid-30s.
“We internalize this and make it about us; that it’s our fault,” Livingston said of the trauma endured into adulthood by victims of childhood sexual abuse.
Livingston sued his attacker in California and said he ultimately reached an out-of-court settlement.
“It’s turning 15 cents into a dollar,” Livingston said of the futility of the settlement. “I’d rather have my life back.”
Livingston, who lives in California, said he flew to Maryland at his own expense to support Kelley’s legislation.
“The only reason we’re all here is for the protection of Maryland children,” he told the committee.
Leaders of the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee did not indicate whether and when the panel will vote on the proposed extension to the statute of limitations.