Saturday, April 15, 2006

Religious Strain on Child Sex Abuse Bill

The image “” cannot be displayed, because it contains errors. Annapolis, MD : Maryland State House --- Capitol of the US from 11/26/1783 to 8/13/1784
Joan Murphy, Special to the Jewish Times
Baltimore Jewish Times
APRIL 07, 2006

A bill to help victims of
childhood sexual abuse seemed assured of success when it overwhelmingly passed the House of Delegates last month. Suddenly, though, it has been abandoned in the Senate in a divisive debate that has even assumed religious undertones.

Sponsored by Del. Pauline Menes (D-21st), of Anne Arundel and Prince George’s counties, House Bill 1148 would extend the statute of limitations for childhood abuse victims to file civil actions against their abusers. Today, a child abuse suit may be filed until the claimant is 25 years old, seven years after the legal age of adulthood. This bill would extend the deadline to allow victims up to 42 years old to seek money from alleged abusers.

With the legislative session winding down, every legislative maneuver is critical. The House overwhelmingly passed the bill by a 130-8 margin on March 24, beating the deadline for it to be automatically assigned to a standing Senate committee, the last stop before a vote on the Senate floor. If it had been reported to the Senate any later, it would have had to be sent to the Senate Rules Committee for consideration.

But in an unusual move, the bill was shoved into the Senate Rules Committee where advocates fear it may languish as the legislature wraps up its session on April 10.

Local Catholic Church officials have been waging a fierce lobbying campaign to kill the bill. They argue that the additional time would allow victims of the abuse to wait too long to seek damages, get counseling and identify their offenders.

"Our concern is that it would not encourage prompt reporting of sex offenses," said Sean Caine, spokesman for Cardinal William Keeler of the Baltimore Archdiocese. Victims often wait until the statute of limitation is about up to file suit, he said.

Critics say the Baltimore Archdiocese is only trying to protect itself from new lawsuits, as these high-profile sexual abuse cases have been costly to the Catholic Church. In fact, on its Web site the Maryland Catholic Conference, the lobbying arm of the local church, said similar legislation passed in California resulted in claims totaling $500 million so far and, in an open letter, appealed for defeat of the Maryland bill.

As part of the lobbying campaign, Cardinal Keeler reportedly has been calling on members of the legislature and leaning on top Maryland officials to kill the bill. "On an issue so significant to the church, it is very common for Cardinal Keeler to raise concerns with a wide variety of people," said Mr. Caine.

But one of those calls crossed the line, as far as
Del. Samuel "Sandy" Rosenberg (D-41st), of Baltimore City, is concerned. Mr. Rosenberg, a co-sponsor of the bill, said that he had received a call from a local rabbi who passed along Cardinal Keeler’s concerns about the bill. The rabbi, whom Mr. Rosenberg agreed not to identify, also said that the cardinal was upset with Jewish lawmakers for pushing the legislation. Ms. Menes and Mr. Rosenberg are Jewish.

"To make a point of the religion of the sponsor of a bill is beneath contempt," Mr. Rosenberg said he told the rabbi. "It’s deplorable."

Del. Neil Quinter (D-13th), of Howard County, agreed. "That is completely inappropriate," said Mr. Quinter, another co-sponsor of the bill. Mr. Quinter’s wife is Jewish and the family is said to be raising its children as Jews. Mr. Quinter added that sexual abuse of children is not a uniquely Catholic issue and that religion should not enter the debate.

Mr. Caine denied the cardinal framed the issue with religious motives. Cardinal Keeler has built his career around reaching out to the Jewish community, he said. "What may have been sharing a concern, may have been misconstrued," he said.

After working with the Catholic Church to pass a compromise bill (an amendment was added that would preclude abuse claims from being retroactive) in the House, Mr. Rosenberg said he is now concerned that the legislation, which should have been sent to the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee, may not survive the Rules Committee.

"They’re playing games in the Senate," said Mr. Quinter. Every other bill that was passed out of the House that day was assigned to a standing committee except HB 1148, he noted. "There are plenty of other ways to beat a bill."

At first, lawmakers thought it was a staff error that routed the legislation to the wrong place. Now, according to Ms. Menes, there are suggestions that Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-27th), of Prince George’s and Calvert counties, who opposed a past a ttempt to extend the statute of limitations, may be playing a role in delaying the legislation.

Ms. Menes said she is trying to move the bill forward because she believes it would be approved if allowed to reach the Senate floor.

In what Mr. Quinter called "an unusual move," House Speaker Michael Busch (D-30th), of Anne Arundel County, personally attended the House Judiciary Committee hearing on the bill. Mr. Quinter described the testimony as "moving and difficult," with victims of abuse talking about how they had not come to terms with their childhood trauma until they were in their 30s and 40s. Mr. Quinter said many testified that they were abused by priests decades ago.

To Ms. Menes, the issue of extending the deadline is very important to the people the legislation is designed to protect.

"The problem has been that people abused as children, especially men, take a longer time to emotionally deal with it," she said. Often, these people wait until they have their own children to have the strength to come forward. "We just wanted to bring the age up to 42 to give them time," she added.


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