BALTIMORE — Maryland’s landmark law allowing people sexually abused as children to sue those responsible, no matter how much time has passed, faces its first known constitutional challenge, from the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Washington.
While widely anticipated, the legal challenge filed this month opens the door to prolonged appellate proceedings debating the constitutionality of the law known as the Child Victims Act, which took effect Oct. 1.
That law lifted a statute of limitations prohibiting victims from suing their abusers, or the institutions that employed them, after a certain amount of time. It also included a provision allowing an appeal on constitutional grounds to the Supreme Court of Maryland.
The Archdiocese of Washington has moved to dismiss a complaint brought on behalf of survivors of child sexual abuse in Prince George’s County Circuit Court, arguing that Maryland’s new law runs afoul of a law the legislature enacted in 2017 extending the statute of limitations. While the 2017 law said victims could file claims until they turned 38, a provision known as a “statute of repose” offered immunity for potential defendants after a victim’s 38th birthday.
“A statute of ‘repose,’ by its very nature, cannot be retroactively ‘repealed,’ and the legislature’s effort to do so was a clear violation of the due process clause and takings clause of the Maryland Constitution,” lawyers for the Archdiocese of Washington wrote. Attorneys for the church declined to comment.
In its motion to dismiss, the Archdiocese of Washington denied the allegations laid out in the Prince George’s County complaint, describing them as vague and unfounded.
A class action lawsuit, the complaint alleges three men were abused as young children by priests, deacons or other Washington diocese employees while they attended churches or schools in Prince George’s or Montgomery counties. The complaint says the experiences of the men named in the complaint, who were not identified by their real names, fit a pattern of abuse by members of the archdiocese.
Jonathan Schochor, one of the plaintiffs attorneys, described the conduct outlined in the complaint as “tragic, ongoing sexual abuse in the worst possible arena.”
“We have priests,” he continued. “We have nuns. We have allied professionals. They are supposed to be the hand of god. They come forward and for decades have abused these children.”
Schochor said his clients “were extremely upset with the archdiocese” when they learned of the motion, pledging to “vigorously oppose that” on their behalf.
A response from the plaintiffs is due Dec. 8, Schochor said. Then, there will likely be a hearing centering on the constitutionality of the Child Victims Act. Whether the trial judge rules to dismiss the lawsuit or allows it to continue, Schochor expects a prompt appeal. Many scholars expect the appeal go straight to the state supreme court, given that it’s considered an unprecedented legal matter.
The development in Prince George’s County comes after the Archdiocese of Baltimore, America’s oldest Catholic archdiocese, declared bankruptcy days before the Child Victims Act took effect and in anticipation of the flood of lawsuits it would bring. The bankruptcy filing froze existing lawsuits against the church and restricted further complaints in state court.
Some abuse survivors view the legal moves from neighboring dioceses as “a coordinated, two-pronged effort to neutralize the Child Victims Act,” said David Lorenz, Maryland director of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, known as SNAP.
“It’s a delay tactic,” added Teresa Lancaster, an Annapolis attorney who survived abuse in the Baltimore archdiocese and now advocates for other victims. “They filed the bankruptcy, and this is like a one-two punch and they want to delay it as long as possible. I’ve always said they wanted the oldest survivors to die off.”
At the same time, Lancaster said, the community of survivors knew the constitutional challenge was coming.
She said survivors already have a host of lawyers on the case. “We expected it,” Lancaster said, “but we have some very good arguments ready to beat this down.”
Lorenz and Lancaster said survivors were calling on Maryland Attorney General Anthony Brown, a Democrat, to reaffirm his February commitment to support the law in court. At the time, he said in a letter to lawmakers the Child Victim’s Act was “not clearly unconstitutional,” and said he would be “comfortable” defending the legislation if it was enacted and challenged in court.
The attorney general reiterated his commitment in a statement Tuesday.
“As I advised the General Assembly during the 2023 session, I can, in good faith, defend the constitutionality of the Child Victims Act, pursuant to the authorities and opportunities presented under Maryland law, and will do so,” Brown said.
It’s unclear how the attorney general’s office will defend the law while simultaneously representing state agencies against lawsuits. Since Oct. 1, several agencies have been named in complaints alleging child sexual abuse.
The constitutional challenge from the archdiocese mirrors its longtime fight against the passage of such a law. Roman Catholic dioceses operating parishes in Maryland spent hundreds of thousands of dollars fighting bills that would’ve allowed survivors of child sexual abuse to sue the church.
However, Lancaster and Lorenz were quick to note that the Maryland Catholic Conference, the church’s lobbying arm, once advocated for the right to pursue retroactive lawsuits against those who used asbestos when building Catholic schools.
“They used it to their benefit and now they want to say it’s not proper for survivors to make use of it,” Lorenz said.