Maryland Weighs Longer Filing Period for Child Abuse Lawsuits

March 14, 2006

Witnesses who had been sexually abused as children offered what Maryland House Speaker Michael Busch described as “gut wrenching” testimony in Annapolis on behalf of legislation that would extend the cutoff time for filing civil lawsuits against abusers.

Two men, including CNN news anchor Thomas Roberts, testified before the House Judiciary Committee last week about the abuse they said they suffered at the hands of a Roman Catholic priest who was chaplain at a Baltimore high school.

“I’m a sexual abuse survivor,” Roberts, 33, said at a hearing where he was one of almost 40 witnesses who were victims of child sexual abuse who signed up for the committee.

Roberts said he stayed silent for almost 20 years about his abuse. But at the hearing, he sat beside Michael Goles, a former Maryland resident, who filed an unsuccessful civil suit against Jerome F. Toohey Jr., who was at one time chaplain of Calvert Hall College High School in Baltimore County.

The suit was dismissed because state law gives victims of abuse just seven years after they reach age 18 to file civil suits. Toohey was sentenced to 18 months in jail last month for sexually abusing Roberts.

One of the bills on the hearing schedule would allow victims of abuse to file civil suits until age 42. Supporters say people often wait until they are in their 30s or 40s to report abuse.

A second bill would create a two-year window when victims of any age could file a suit. When California opened a one-year window, about 800 suits were filed by people alleging abuse by priests or other church employees.

Both bills were opposed by church officials.

“The bills are bad for several reasons,” said June Belford, chancellor of the Archdiocese of Washington. Belford, who attended the hearing, said Maryland has no time limit on filing criminal charges in child sexual abuse cases and imposes strict requirements on adults to report suspected abuse.

In an interview with The Washington Post, Richard Dowling, executive director of the Maryland Catholic Conference, said it is very difficult to defend against claims of abuse that allegedly took place many years earlier. A limit on filing suits helps protect innocent people, he said.

But witnesses who said they had been abused pleaded for more time to file suits.

Anne Marie Martinez told the committee she was abused by a priest when she was 13. “It took me 55 years to come forward and talk about this,” she said.

Topics Lawsuits Abuse Molestation Maryland

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