Statement of the Archdiocese of Washington on Proposed MD Legislation to Eliminate Statutes of Limitation for Civil (Not Criminal) Money Claims

March 10, 2006

Below is the testimony of Jane Belford, Chancellor, on behalf of the Archdiocese of Washington. Ms. Belford spoke before the Maryland House of Delegates’ Judiciary Committee, March 9, 2006:

Mr. Chairman, members of the Committee, I appreciate the opportunity to speak with you today on behalf of the Archdiocese of Washington. We are home to more than 560,000 Catholics, who come from many backgrounds and nations, and worship in 22 languages at 140 parishes in five Maryland counties – Calvert, Charles, Montgomery, Prince George’s and St. Mary’s – as well as Washington, D.C. We are the largest non-governmental provider of social services in the Washington metropolitan region, providing food, housing, healthcare, job training, and family and immigration services through our agencies to more than 120,000 people in need, regardless of faith. Every year, our multiple parish-based ministries serve the poor, sick, homeless, jobless, disabled and homebound in their communities while our 112 Catholic schools educate nearly 33,000 students, at an annual savings to taxpayers of more than $300 million. Nearly half of our students (45%) are non-white and 28% are non-Catholic.

As the Chancellor of the Archdiocese of Washington, I have been involved in all aspects of the important work of protecting children and serving those harmed by abuse. The Archdiocese of Washington has long been committed to keeping children safe and, over the years, has supported legislative initiatives in Maryland that protect and promote the safety of children. We have had a written child protection policy for more than 20 years that is published online at www.adw.org. This policy has required that all suspected allegations of abuse be reported immediately to civil authorities in compliance with the law. We conduct mandatory F.B.I. and state criminal background checks on all clergy, and employees and volunteers who have substantial contact with children and require that they take mandatory safe-environment training. We have fingerprinted nearly 24,000 clergy, employees and volunteers for F.B.I. and state criminal background checks; 17,000 employees and volunteers have attended prevention and safe environment training workshops; and 46,000 students in our schools and religious education programs have received safe environment and protection training. In just the past two years alone, we have spent nearly $785,000 on these child protection efforts.

The Archdiocese is committed to the treatment and healing of those affected by the abuse of children. We understand and regret the suffering of abuse victims and are committed to helping them heal. Everything we have done and said over the last 20 years demonstrates that we take this commitment seriously and are doing all that we can to protect children. While we cannot undo the past, we have and continue to assume responsibility for those who may have been harmed. We want victims to come forward to us and have made that both possible and easy. We apologize. We offer immediate assistance. We pay for the person and, in some cases, their family members, to receive counseling and therapy of their choice. We do this right away and for as long as may be necessary for a person to heal. We have done this for many, many years because of our concern for their well-being. And, we provide this support regardless of any civil action and regardless of statutes of limitations. To date, the Archdiocese has spent more than $3.5 million for counseling and assistance for victims. We believe the necessary processes, crosschecks and training are in place to help to ensure the safety of children in our care. The Archdiocese’s child protection efforts have been commended in three annual independent audits.

My testimony today will focus on several concerns that lead to our opposition to House Bill 1147 and House Bill 1148. House Bill 1147 would open a two-year period within which victims can bring civil money damage claims against private—but not public—institutions for the actions of someone living or dead, regardless of how long ago the alleged abuse occurred. House Bill 1148 would extend the statute of limitations for such civil damage claims from seven to 24 years, and would make that apply retroactively to revive claims that were previously barred. Under this bill, a person would have until age 42 to bring a civil damages claim based on conduct that could have occurred more than 35 years before.

It is important to note that these bills have nothing to do with the criminal prosecution of those who have abused children. Fortunately, Maryland is one of only a very few states in the nation that does not limit the time in which to bring a criminal prosecution of anyone who sexually abuses a child. Unlike other states where similar legislative initiatives have been considered, child abusers in Maryland are never free from criminal sanctions. These abusers can be held criminally accountable for their crimes, no matter how long ago. We fully support the criminal prosecution of those who have abused children, have cooperated in criminal proceedings involving clergy and employees and will continue to do so.

Similarly, unlike most other states, Maryland has had a mandatory reporting requirement since 1983 that requires every citizen, including bishops, priests and every employee and volunteer of the Archdiocese, who has reason to believe abuse has occurred, to report it. This reporting requirement serves to promote the safety of children through prompt reporting that can holding abusers accountable for their crimes and bring help as soon as possible to those who have been harmed. The Archdiocese has complied with this reporting requirement, has reported suspected abuse to civil authorities and fully cooperated in investigations and prosecutions.

While there may be more that can be done legislatively to protect children and offer healing to victims of abuse, these bills will do neither. Maryland has had laws in place for many years that have helped to ensure the timeliness of investigations, that offenders are held accountable and that victims receive immediate support and assistance. By contrast, the proposed suspension of the civil limitations period for a two year period and the proposed retroactive extension of the time to bring civil money damage claims have the potential to undermine investigations, delay the receipt of support by victims and leave an offender’s accountability for another day. Eliminating or vastly extending the statute of limitations does not and will not protect children. Early reporting helps to protect children from harm, to get immediate assistance, to remove/incarcerate the perpetrator and hold him or her accountable

For many years, without the need for such legislative proposals, we have been trying to help victims of sexual abuse heal. The statute of limitations has never been a bar to receiving help from the Archdiocese and has never been used to deny such help. The Church understands that the sooner the healing process begins, the more effectively a shattered life can be restored. As a matter of policy and practice over the years, our bishops have met with and listened to victims of sexual abuse and their families, even traveling out of state to meet them if necessary, and have offered psychological counseling or therapy of their choice. This has been done without regard to legal obligation and irrespective of whether a victim has established the truth of his or her allegation, has filed a lawsuit or is in any adversarial relationship whatsoever with the Archdiocese. Again, we offer help regardless of when a victim comes forward or how long ago the abuse occurred. Indeed, we have continued to pay for therapy and medical treatment even after a lawsuit has been filed and even when a plaintiff has lost.

Statutes of limitations exist for very good reasons that have nothing to do with the entity being sued. They bring a level of fairness to the judicial process. They are intended to provide adequate time for a diligent plaintiff to bring suit and ensure fairness to defendants by encouraging prompt filing of claims. These bills stand this principle on its head. By eliminating time limits or vastly extending them, these bills unfairly require a religious organization or other private entity to try to defend a civil lawsuit involving allegations that could be 30 to 40 years old. Memories fade over time, and witnesses and accused individuals may have died, disappeared or become infirm. No one in a position of responsibility today was in a position of any responsibility when incidents that would be affected by this proposal took place. And, it is fair to say that most of the members of the Church that will have to pay a judgment today were probably not members of the Church at the time of the abuse.

In Maryland, the statute of limitations on many civil actions is only 3 years. Presumably, this is to avoid placing a defendant in the position of not being able to discover witnesses or information that is no longer available. If the law presumes to protect defendants against claims that are only 3 years old, how can it be fair to require a defendant to attempt to defend against a claim that is 30 or 40 years old and may never have been reported before?

At stake here is the ability of the Church to fairly defend itself against decades-old claims seeking substantial monetary awards. How can it be justice to require us to defend against lawsuits based on claims that arose 30-40 years ago, that are not covered by insurance, the people involved may be dead, and it can be difficult, if not impossible to ascertain the truth. Maryland already has criminal statutes that ensure that those responsible for committing harm will be held accountable without financially crushing churches and other non-profit organizations that have committed to helping people heal.

These bills also do not help all victims of child sexual abuse since they only apply to private institutions. They do not treat public and private entities equally with regard to civil claims arising from the sexual abuse of children. Those who may have been abused in schools, juvenile facilities, foster homes, hospitals and other government facilities are subject to far different standards. Civil money damage actions against public institutions are subject to strict notice requirements, short time frames and very low financial damage caps. For example, a child abused by a state or local employee must give notice to the State of his or her intention to file a claim within one year of the incident or lose the right to do so. As stated in Haupt v. State, 340 Md. 462, 470 (1995), “The purpose of requiring that notice be given to the State within 1 year after incurring the injury to which the claim relates is [] to give the State early notice of claims against it.” The court went on to say “early notice, in turn, affords the State the opportunity to investigate the claims while the facts are fresh and memories vivid, and, where appropriate, settle them at the earliest possible time.” Civil actions brought against local government entities under the Local Government Tort Claims Act require that notice of a claim be given within 180 days of the injury and limit the amount of damages that may be recovered. Religious and private institutions enjoy no such protections.

It is difficult to understand why this Body is considering lengthening the statute of limitations when a religious institution is involved, while continuing to maintain a one-year notice requirement when state employees are involved and an even shorter notice requirement for local government employees. The harm is the same, yet the standards are drastically different based solely on whether the claim is brought against a public or private institution.

The help that this legislation intends to offer to victims of sexual abuse who already may pursue criminal prosecution at anytime and also are receiving assistance to heal, is outweighed by the grave harm it will cause not only to our Church, but also more importantly to the people in need whom we serve. We have a proven record of serving those who have been harmed. But awarding large sums of money to a few, with a steep percentage going to lawyers, particularly when incidents occurred without our knowledge, has the potential to cause severe financial consequences that threaten our ability to provide the programs that serve the poorest among us, including children, immigrants, the sick and disabled, elderly and others who depend upon our help.

The actions of those priests and others who sexually abused children unquestionably caused great harm to the victims of abuse and their families. But they also did harm to the entire Church, those whose contributions have built and support it and those who depend upon it for the services and help it provides. It has been tremendously painful to all of us who love our Church and are committed to the well being of children and all people.

The Church is not in business to make a profit. The people in the pew and the people who are served by the Church, many of whom are not Catholic, had no control over the person who committed the abuse. Eliminating or extending the statute of limitations as proposed in these bills creates uncertainty and potentially open-ended liability for the Church, the result of which may have far-reaching consequences.

Maryland, unlike most other states, has criminal laws in place that are not subject to any time limitations and can hold an abuser accountable for his crimes no matter how long ago they occurred. Maryland, unlike most other states, has long mandated the reporting of suspicions of abuse, which for more than 20 years has helped to ensure that abuse is reported promptly and abusers can be identified and stopped. We believe that these laws, together with the policies aimed at prevention and training that have existed in the Archdiocese for more than 20 years, are working to protect children and ensure that victims are cared for and helped in their healing process.

Contact:
Susan Gibbs
Director of Communications
301-853-4515
[email protected]