- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 12, 2009

The other day, I spotted a piece in the Catholic Standard raising the alarm about a new Senate bill in the Maryland legislature.

It was written by Jane Belford, chancellor for the Archdiocese of Washington. Any time their top lawyer writes something for the diocesan paper, that means serious business.

Sure enough, she was sounding the alarm about Senate Bill 238, which would give victims of priestly sexual abuse a two-year window to sue the church in civil court.

Currently, Maryland law has a statute-of-limitations clause that only allows victims 25 years or younger to sue for damages. Problem is, sex abuse victims rarely if ever are in a position - mentally and emotionally - to file suit by their mid-20s.

“To ask a 25-year-old or less to come forward when they’ve been so recently traumatized by an institution they’ve been taught all their lives to obey is highly unlikely,” says Ellen Mugman, a member of the Coalition to Protect Maryland’s Children.

I had dinner not long ago with a woman who was sexually abused starting at the age of 4. She didn’t even start confronting her family until her 30s. She still struggles with depression and cannot hold down a job. “You never recover,” she told me.

The proposed bill before the Maryland Senate raises the age limit to 50. Victims rights advocates have been trying to extend the statute of limitations for years. Whenever such a bill is proposed, lobbyists from the Maryland Catholic Conference descend, alerts go out to local Catholics and the bill disappears.

The behind-the-scenes machinations in Annapolis are worthy of a mafia novel. We reported in 2004 how one delegate leading the charge for the bill abruptly changed his mind after he was summoned for a private audience with then-Washington Cardinal Theodore E. McCarrick. In 2006, the bill was mysteriously sent to the wrong committee, from which it never emerged.

“They do not want to be in a position of having to open their records,” said Stephanie Town, a victim’s advocate who helped pass a revised statute bill in Delaware. “Then everyone finds out that the sexual abuse was much worse than imagined. Thus, more victims come forward, more charges are filed and more bad publicity follows.”

Along with settlements. The three Maryland dioceses are in no mood to make these kinds of payouts: Archdiocese of Los Angeles, $660 million; Diocese of Orange, Calif., $100 million; Archdiocese of Boston, $85 million; and Archdiocese of Louisville, Ky., $25.7 million.

Six dioceses: Portland, Ore.; Spokane, Wash.; Tucson, Ariz.; Davenport, Iowa; San Diego; and Fairbanks, Alaska, have filed for bankruptcy. Were they done in by lawsuits or did they use bankruptcy as a tactic to slow down the creditors?

Catholic leaders have said repeatedly the only people who benefit from high settlements are trial lawyers. The Catholic Review, newspaper for the Archdiocese of Baltimore, says Bill 238 would have a “devastating impact,” although it did not add that diocesan insurers often pay the bills for lawsuits.

The Washington Archdiocese has spent more than $6 million to date in payouts to victims, Mrs. Belford said, which includes $1.3 million paid out in 2006 to 16 male victims. That’s an average of $81,000 each before legal fees; small change compared with what other dioceses have spent.

It will be a lot more if this bill is passed.

• Julia Duin’s Stairway to Heaven runs Thursdays and Sundays. Contact her at jduin@washingtontimes.com.

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