Marci A. Hamilton: Killing abuse suit bill puts children at risk
Professor Marci Hamilton
By Marci A. Hamilton
February 29, 2008
BALTIMORE - Under pressure from the Catholic Church, Maryland lawmakers shelved legislation to identify predators among us. With HB858, Maryland was part of a national movement to eliminate statutes of limitations for childhood sexual abuse. This bill offered the hope of a “window” to allow claims previously barred.
Our legal system favors predators over the protection of children. By the time victims are capable of coming forward, the law lets predators escape through the statute of limitations — again and again.
Those predators now live and work near — often with — our children, but we do not know who they are because we keep the courthouse locked against victims.
Perhaps even harder to understand, the Catholic Conference of Maryland killed this bill through lies and misrepresentations about its purposes and effects.
Churches recently distributed handouts to area Catholics making outrageous and dishonest claims. They argued the legislation “targets” the church, even though its terms plainly cover all private institutions. This claim must be challenged — clergy members attack about 5 percent of victims in this country. The rest are attacked by family, family acquaintances, teachers, coaches, scout leaders and others. Those are covered by the bill as well. So let’s get to the truth: The church’s lobbyists concocted a false accusation of “targeting” when really they are keeping the courthouse locked against millions of other victims.
The hierarchy also claims the bill targets it because so many claims have been brought against the church in other jurisdictions. But hasn’t it just made the case for the bill? Don’t the numbers prove the need for the bill? The public impact is extraordinary. Window legislation revealed predators we could not have known otherwise.
We have had two windows so far. In California 300 perpetrators were identified who were unknown before. Delaware’s window opened in July, but in both states records proved the hierarchy continues to harbor an unconscionable number of secrets, and helped to identify predators in other states.
The church also misled about who really pays settlements for covering up child abuse. So far, 50 percent of settlements have been paid by the insurance companies to whom the dioceses were paying premiums for years.
The other 50 percent has been paid by sale of land unrelated to ministry. Schools weren’t shut down and services were not curtailed. Instead, the church sold office buildings, mansions and empty lots. Indeed, one would hardly expect Catholic Charities to be affected by any settlement given that a minimum of 70 percent of funds for the major Catholic services provider comes from local, state and federal taxes.
Predictably, the church’s lobbyists complained the bill applies only to private institutions and not to public. The Constitution divides private and public, and states have always treated the two as separate.
Here is what the citizens of Maryland need to understand: If the conference really cared about children, it would introduce a bill to apply the same principles in HB858 to public entities. I support such reform. But its goal in talking about equal treatment is to kill the bill, not to aid all children.
Finally, church lobbyists argue that reopening the statutes of limitations is unfair, because evidence gets stale and witnesses die. Those deficiencies undermine the victims’ cases. It only removes the bar to a lawsuit. It does not alter the burden of proof.
Nor does the church take responsibility for the fact that the statute of limitations ran out because it did not call police when it knew priests committed crimes.
We are all complicit in the national silent epidemic of childhood sexual abuse by legally protecting predators and endangering children. Maryland leaders failed to make this state a safer place for our children.
While the men of the Catholic hierarchy and their lobbyists toast one another for eviscerating HB858, Maryland parents will never learn about 90 percent of the predators in their midst, and incest survivors can only wonder how propaganda could push their interests off the table.