As Del. C.T. Wilson (D-Charles) has done for several years, he stood on the House of Delegates floor Friday morning to implore his colleagues to support legislation on behalf of child sexual abuse survivors.
In past years, efforts to pass similar bills have found success in the House, but stalled in the Senate.
But this year, Sen. William C. Smith Jr. (D-Montgomery), chair of the Judicial Proceedings Committee, ushered legislation through his chamber that passed March 16.
This year’s House vote on House Bill 1 brought an intense feeling of relief for survivors such as Wilson, who hugged House Judiciary Chair Luke Clippinger (D-Baltimore City), after a resounding 132-2 vote. The chamber erupted in a standing ovation.
Before Wilson cast his vote in support of the bill labeled The Child Victims Act of 2023, he had a message for survivors.
“I just want these people to understand that you are heard [and] you’re not alone,” he said. “For the individuals in this body, in the State House, your staff that reached out to me over the years — dozens and dozens — and told me their story, shared with me something they won’t share with anybody else: This is hope.”
After the House adjourned, Wilson greeted David and Judy Lorenz of Prince George’s County in the State House hallway. David Lorenz, a child sexual abuse survivor, serves as Maryland director of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, also called SNAP.
“Thank you, C.T.,” Lorenz said. “A whole lot of people will sleep easier tonight.”
“Thank you for sticking with it all these years,” Wilson replied.
In a brief interview, Wilson said he plans to focus on his health after the vote.
“I feel like I can finally stop focusing on helping other people and maybe start helping myself. I’ve spent years helping everybody else and avoided my own issues and they’ve just gotten worse,” he said. “With this chapter being closed, I can at least continue the story by doing some self-help…because it took a lot out of me this year. It really put me in a dark little pit that I’ve got to crawl out of now. But I can rest assured that at least we’ve done our best for what we can do.”
There are still some procedural steps the bill must take before final passage in the legislature. Wilson’s bill is identical to a Senate measure that’s making its way through the House of Delegates. One of the bills must be passed by the second chamber before it will be sent to Gov. Wes Moore (D) for consideration.
The bills, as amended, lift previous statutory time limits and will allow survivors to sue their abusers or organizations that harbored them “at any time.”
The bill also caps liability for public entities at $890,000. It would increase the liability limit to $1.5 million for claims against private institutions for non-economic damages such as pain and suffering. In addition, it removes the cap for economic damages for costs of services such as therapy or medical treatment.
If both chambers complete the formal approval process by the session’s last day April 10, Gov. Wes Moore (D) plans to sign the legislation once it reaches his desk.
“Gov. Moore…commends Chairman Wilson and the child abuse survivors who have courageously told their stories and pushed for this legislation to pass,” Moore’s spokesperson Carter Elliott IV said in a text message. “Gov. Moore looks forward to signing this bill into law to protect Maryland’s children.”
‘Bravo to Wilson and Smith’
Wilson has received credit for his work on the legislation since 2017 when he successfully led a bill to extend the age limit from 25 to 38 for someone to sue for child sexual abuse.
However, lawmakers have debated since about whether it would be unconstitutional to repeal a statute of repose, a provision in the 2017 bill meant to prevent additional future changes to the law, which most lawmakers didn’t appear at the time to fully understand.
Kathleen Hoke, a University of Maryland professor, explained the legal concept of a statute of repose to lawmakers in January during a briefing with the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee. She said a statute of repose typically exists relating to liability in building construction and includes an exception for cases involving harm from asbestos because it’s a public health concern.
While this year’s law is nearly certain to be challenged in court, Attorney General Anthony Brown (D) wrote in advice letter earlier this year that he can “in good faith defend the legislation.”
Meanwhile, Brown’s office is preparing to release findings of an investigation into alleged abuse by clergy in the state. The attorney general’s office said it’s “moving as expeditiously as possible” to release the report.
Susan Gibbs, spokesperson for the Maryland Catholic Conference, said in a statement Friday the Catholic dioceses in the state have sought to protect minors and published names of those “known to have harmed. This commitment to protect and heal has stood and will stand regardless of the law.”
However, the conference still opposes House Bill 1 “based on constitutional concerns and the lack of parity between public and private entities.”
Del. Mark Fisher (R-Calvert), who supports the Catholic Church and its universities and private schools, also acknowledged survivors deserved to be heard.
“We don’t want this incredible institution to go away, but we also must be critical thinkers to give these individuals justice,” Fisher, who voted in favor of the legislation, said on the House floor.
Kathryn Robb, executive director of Child USAdvocacy based in Philadelphia, praised Wilson and Smith for their work. Robb, whose organization conducts national advocacy and research on child sexual abuse, has testified alongside both lawmakers in Annapolis.
“Bravo to Del. C.T. Wilson, Sen. William Smith and all the brave survivors and advocates!” Robb said in a text message Friday. “This is a great day for Maryland and basic notions of justice! Maryland moves to the front of class for child protection and justice!”
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