Update: Maryland Senate Bill 575 Defeated

March 16, 2007

Update: Maryland Senate Bill 575 was defeated in the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee, 8-2, on Friday, March 16.

Below is the testimony of Jane Belford, chancellor of the Archdiocese of Washington regarding the Archdiocese’s opposition to this proposed legislation. The bill would have permitted open-ended civil lawsuits for money against non-public organizations, such as the Archdiocese, its parishes and schools. Public schools, public hospitals and other public organizations would be exempt. Ms. Belford testified before the Maryland Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee on March 1, 2007.

More information is in the March 8 issue of the Catholic Standard.

Statement of Jane G. Belford, Chancellor, Archdiocese of Washington, to the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee

Senate Bill 575 Regarding the Retroactive Elimination of the Statute of Limitations for Civil Damage Actions Relating to Child Sexual Abuse

Thursday, March 1, 2007

Mr. Chairman, members of the Committee, I appreciate the opportunity to speak with you today on behalf of the Archdiocese of Washington, which represents nearly 600,000 of Maryland’s 1.2 million Catholics. The Archdiocese is committed to the treatment and healing of those who have been harmed through abuse. The heartfelt sorrow that we feel has strengthened our commitment to do everything possible to help victims heal and see that this doe not happen again. Everything we have done and said over the last 20 years demonstrates this commitment. While we cannot undo the past, we can and have assumed responsibility for those who may have been harmed. We want victims to come forward to us so we may assist them. We have taken concrete steps to facilitate that. We apologize. We offer immediate assistance. We pay for counseling, therapy and other assistance not only for victims, but in some cases even for their families. We do this right away and for as long as necessary for a person to heal. We have done this for many years not because a law told us to, but because, as people of faith concerned for the well-being of others, we believe it is the right thing to do. We provide this support regardless of any lawsuits and regardless of statutes of limitations. In fact, to date, the Archdiocese has spent more than $6 million for victim counseling and assistance.

Child protection has long been a priority of the Archdiocese of Washington. 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 mandated 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 25,000 clergy, employees and volunteers for F.B.I. and state criminal background checks; nearly 20,000 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.

We share your concerns and support legislative efforts that truly are aimed at helping individuals heal and keeping children safe. Senate Bill 575 does neither. Senate Bill 575 would eliminate the statute of limitations on civil lawsuits against private—but not public—institutions for time-barred claims of sexual abuse that may have occurred 30, 40 or even 50 years ago. We believe that Senate Bill 575 is an unconstitutional, unfair, financial evisceration of the Catholic Church in Maryland that disregards our two–decade old model safety and prevention program and our even longer history of providing unlimited therapy, counseling and other assistance to victims of abuse. For these reasons, we are forced to oppose it.

There is No Criminal Statute of Limitations in Maryland

It is important to note Senate Bill 575 has nothing to do with holding abusers criminally liable. Unlike other states which have considered extensions of civil statutes of limitations, in Maryland, child sexual abusers are never free from criminal sanctions. Maryland is one of only a very few states in the nation that does not limit the time in which a person who commits a felony can be prosecuted. Abusers can be held criminally accountable for their crimes and have been, even many years after the abuse occurred. In fact, we have facilitated the criminal prosecution of those who have abused children by cooperating in criminal proceedings involving clergy, employees and volunteers, and we will continue to do so.

Civil Statutes of Limitations No Bar to Receiving Help from the Archdiocese

The civil statute of limitations has never been a bar to a person receiving help from the Archdiocese and has not 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. A critical part of our outreach includes paying for psychological counseling or therapy of the victim’s choice, often over a number of years. Other types of assistance have also been provided. Just three months ago, in December 2006, the Archdiocese provided a group of 18 individuals with a financial payment in lieu of paying counseling and other costs into the future. All of these individuals had been offered counseling when they came forward and many had been receiving assistance for a number of years. The total amount paid to them and their counsel was $1.3 million.

This help has been provided without regard to legal obligation and irrespective of whether a victim has proved his or her allegation, filed a lawsuit or is in any way adversarial towards the Archdiocese. Again, we offer help regardless of when a victim comes forward or regardless of 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 in court.

Statutes of Limitations are Safeguards Built into Our Laws to Prevent Unfairness

Civil statutes of limitations are safeguards built into our laws to prevent unfairness. They exist for very good reasons that have nothing to do with the entity being sued. They bring a level of fairness to civil lawsuits by providing adequate time for a plaintiff to bring a monetary claim while avoiding placing a defendant in the position of not being able to discover witnesses or information that is no longer available. They also enable prompt investigation and correction of a problem. This bill would destroy for the Church that balance in our civil lawsuit system. By eliminating time limits, this bill unfairly requires a religious organization or other private entity to try to defend a civil lawsuit involving allegations that could be 30 to 40 years old, where the alleged abuser and other witnesses may be dead or disappeared. Fair laws do not revive old, time-barred claims against dead offenders, because it is too late to prevent recidivism, exonerating evidence is lost, and fraudulent claims increase.

In a separate letter to this Committee, Timothy Delaney, the retired commander of the Family Services Division of the Montgomery County Police Department, makes this very point: “To allow civil claims against an organization, especially involving allegations that may never have been reported before or were reported only decades after the fact, does not make sense from an investigation standpoint.” 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 would have to pay for a civil lawsuit 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 three years. If the law presumes to protect defendants against claims that are only three years old, it makes no sense 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. As we have publicly reported, at least 85% of the allegations made against clergy in the Archdiocese occurred prior to 1980. How can it be justice to require us to defend against lawsuits based on claims that are this old, that are not covered by insurance or where the people involved have died, making it difficult, if not impossible, to ascertain the truth? Maryland has criminal statutes that ensure that those responsible for committing harm will be held accountable without attempting to crush churches and other non-profit organizations that already are devoting substantial resources towards helping people heal.

The proposed suspension of civil limitations on civil money damage claims would not protect children, nor offer healing to victims of abuse, and runs counter to Maryland’s early reporting requirement that is based on the belief that early reporting helps to protect children from harm, to get immediate assistance, to remove/incarcerate the perpetrator and to hold them accountable. 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, hold abusers accountable for their crimes and bring help as soon as possible to victims.

Legislation Regarding Childhood Sexual Abuse Claims Must Be Fair and Must Treat All Institutions Responsible for Children—Public and Non-Public—in the Same Manner

Senate Bill 575 is not about child protection but retroactively reviving time-barred claims and providing monetary damages for individuals. Even so, Senate Bill 575 treats public and private entities far differently when it comes to such civil claims arising from the sexual abuse of children. It is alarming to us when we see bills that have been introduced in four of the last five years, all aimed at the Catholic Church. An equal or greater number of cases of sexual abuse arise in public settings, such as schools, foster homes, juvenile detention facilities and other institutional settings, yet they are not targeted by SB 575.

In a Congressionally mandated study of sexual abuse in schools, prepared for the U.S. Department of Education and released in June 2004, Professor Charol Shakeshaft found that 6.7% of K-12 public school students—over three million children—reported that a school employee sexually abused them in a physical manner. From her analysis of all available research in this area, Professor Shakeshaft has concluded that sexual misconduct of public school employees is a significant problem and that legislative responses must cover every institution where children are served. The numbers in the DOE study dwarf the historical problem in Catholic institutions; nevertheless proponents of legislation like SB 575 seem only to be interested in abuse in church or nongovernmental settings.

The unintended message to members of the Assembly and the public is that this legislation somehow fixes the problems facing this state when it comes to providing justice for victims of child sexual abuse. As Shay Bilchik, the former president of the Child Welfare League of America notes in his letter to this committee, each year almost three million reports of abuse and neglect are made nationally, with approximately 900,000 of those substantiated. In Maryland, according to the Maryland Department of Human Resources, Child Protective Services, there were 1,115 findings of child sexual abuse in the one-year period July 2004-June 2005.

Child sexual abuse is a societal problem that requires significant attention and aggressive action. According to Mr. Bilchik, however, only a small number of those cases are related to institutional abuse, with even fewer linked to clergy. SB 575 “does the many thousands of victims of abuse and neglect in this state a disservice in diverting attention from the broader range of actions the Senate and the Assembly as a whole could take to prevent abuse and neglect and strengthen the response of the State of Maryland’s child welfare system and its criminal and family courts when it does occur.”

In Maryland, public institutions, such as schools, juvenile facilities, foster homes, hospitals and other government facilities are subject to far different standards than non-profits and other organizations. Civil money damage actions against public institutions are subject to strict notice requirements, short time frames and very low financial damage caps. For example, the Local Government Tort Claims Act requires that notice of a civil claim against local government entities be given within 180 days of the injury and the Act limits the amount of damages that may be recovered. Religious and private institutions enjoy no such protections. A child abused by a state or local government employee must give notice to the State of his or her intention to file a claim within one year of the incident, regardless of the child’s age, 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.”

This reasoning – to allow investigations “while the facts are fresh and memories vivid” — is completely eviscerated by S.B. 575 which removes all time limits on civil claims – but only for non-public entities, such as the Archdiocese of Washington. Legislation should not only treat all entities fairly, but also in the same manner. It is difficult to understand how that can happen when the proposal would only eliminate the statute of limitations for lawsuits against a religious institution, without also eliminating the one-year limit for lawsuits when state employees abuse and the 180 day limit when local government employees abuse. 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.

We are concerned that S.B.575 does not in any way address the continuing risks to children in these other settings, such as public schools, public hospitals, juvenile justice facilities, and other publicly funded settings. A Washington Post headline last July 26 read, “11 Sex Offenders Eligible to Teach: Audit Faults School System Oversight.” Eleven convicted sex offenders were certified as teachers and eligible to be hired by Maryland public schools. The state superintendent of schools noted a number of challenges her office faced in implementing safeguards, while also saying this did not rise “to the level of a ‘headline issue.’”

As indicated in an attachment to this testimony, just a quick review of local newspapers in the last year yielded at least 15 reported arrests for child sex abuse involving Maryland teachers and school personnel, as well as at least 16 additional arrests during the same period for child sexual abuse in non-school settings. These reports serve to highlight that the more significant and profound need that should be addressed, and that S.B. 575 does not address is, as Mr. Bilchilk urges, the need to create a stronger set of policies and practices to ensure the safety of children in every setting.

The Archdiocese has had such policies and practices in place for many years. By contrast, for example, Prince George’s County only began screening volunteers last August. A Washington Post article, dated August 8, 2006, said it was only after a volunteer football coach was charged with sexually abusing a student that the county ordered background checks and fingerprinting of volunteers. Sadly, most public school systems in Maryland do not appear to require fingerprinting or training or references, all protections we have put in place. As Captain Delaney, a veteran 20-year investigator of child sexual abuse claims, wrote to you, “I have been impressed with how hard the Archdiocese of Washington has worked to ensure the safety of children and youth in its care…Sadly many organizations in our state, including many public school systems, don’t offer the same protections, leaving children in these locations at high risk.”

S.B. 575 is Unconstitutional

Finally, we have deep concerns about the fundamental fairness and constitutionality of any retroactive change in statutes of limitations, particularly those that would single out private institutions. We sought an interpretation of this question from the leading expert on Maryland’s Constitution, Dan Friedman. In a separate letter to the Committee, Mr. Friedman has set forth his persuasive analysis and conclusion that, based upon his review of the Maryland constitution, Maryland case law and the decisions of other jurisdictions interpreting similar constitutional provisions, SB 575 is unconstitutional. Mr. Friedman further states: “In attempting to resurrect stale claims—in some instances, extremely stale claims—retroactivity would violate the vested rights of defendants and the important policy reasons underlying statutes of limitations. More importantly, I am confident that the Court of Appeals of Maryland will invalidate these provisions if adopted.” See Letter to The Honorable Brian E. Frosh, Chair and Members of the Judicial Proceedings Committee, March 1, 2007.

Committed to Heal, Committed to Serve

Make no mistake about it, this bill would cause harm not only to our Church, but also to the Marylanders in need whom we serve. We have a proven record of serving those who have been harmed. Reviving time-barred claims to create new lawsuits to award large sums, with a steep percentage going to lawyers, would have a severe financial impact on 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. In a letter to the Committee from Msgr. Mark Brennan, pastor of St. Martin of Tours Catholic Church in Gaithersburg, Maryland, the largest parish in the Archdiocese and a majority immigrant parish, he details the many different services, programs and material assistance he provides on a daily basis to his overwhelmingly immigrant parishioners and others in the area. He worries that this bill could cripple the good work, both spiritual and material, that the Catholic Church is doing throughout Maryland: “Why does S.B. 575 bother me? Because there is a good chance that my parish resources, already stretched thin, could be jeopardized by a surge in lawsuits.”

We are home to 580,000 Catholics. They come from many backgrounds and nations and worship in over 20 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 111 Catholic schools educate nearly 33,000 students, at an annual savings to taxpayers of more than $380 million. Nearly half of our students (45%) are minority and 25% are non-Catholic.

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 the statute of limitations as proposed in this bill creates uncertainty and potentially open-ended liability for the Church, the result of which would have far-reaching consequences.

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.

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. We have spent millions of dollars helping victims to heal and we will continue to reach out with compassionate assistance for those injured. I know of no other institution, other than the Catholic Church, that has committed publicly to assume this responsibility, to do everything possible to help in the healing process, and that has codified and published this policy for all to see. Added to that, we have taken extraordinary precautions to help to ensure that sexual misconduct does not recur with model programs and best practices, implemented across the board in our schools, parishes and all ministries, devoting substantial resources to the effort.

We believe that under these circumstances, S.B. 575 is a flawed bill and should not be favorably considered.

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