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How Are Maryland’s Religious Institutions Being Held Accountable for Past Sexual Abuse Cases?

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What Steps Have Been Taken to Hold Maryland’s Religious Institutions Accountable for Prior Sexual Abuse Cases?

For too long, some of Maryland’s religious institutions have ignored or actively covered up allegations of childhood sexual abuse. Recently, there has been a movement to hold them responsible for these heinous acts through a combination of legal mechanisms, legislative actions, and institutional reforms. Crucially, new developments in Maryland’s legal landscape have significantly impacted how survivors of childhood sexual abuse can seek justice and hold their abusers and the religious institutions that harbored them accountable.

What is the Maryland Child Victims Act?

The Maryland Child Victims Act is a piece of legislation that was enacted to address child sexual abuse cases in the state. This act, officially known as Senate Bill 686, was signed into law by Maryland Governor Wes Moore and went into effect on October 1, 2023. The nationwide impact of the act is significant as it sets a precedent for legislative changes that empower survivors of childhood sexual abuse. Religious institutions and their lobbyists had vehemently opposed the legislation, and the legal challenges to its constitutionality are ongoing. However, for now, it provides essential support to sexual abuse victims.

What Are the Key Outcomes of This Legislation?

Important provisions of the Child Victims Act include:

  • Elimination of statute of limitations: The act removes the statute of limitations for all future lawsuits related to childhood sexual abuse. This crucial change allows survivors to file civil lawsuits at any time, regardless of when the act occurred, ensuring that they have a pathway to seek justice even years after the abuse took place.
  • Broadening the definition of sexual abuse: The act widens the scope of the state’s definition of sexual abuse to include various forms of misconduct, such as rape, incest, sexual offenses, and other criminal sexual conduct. By expanding this definition, the act ensures that survivors can seek legal recourse for a wide range of abusive behaviors.
  • Establishing limitations on damages: The act establishes caps on non-economic damages in cases that would have been time-barred prior to the act’s effective date of October 1, 2023. Non-economic damages may include mental anguish, pain and suffering, and loss of life’s enjoyment. The maximum amount of non-economic damages that can be awarded to a single claimant in an action against a single defendant for injuries resulting from childhood sexual abuse is $1,500,000.
  • Ensuring accountability and support: By creating a legal framework that supports survivors in seeking justice, the Maryland Child Victims Act aims to hold perpetrators and any institutions that may have enabled or covered up the abuse accountable for their actions.

How Has the Maryland Attorney General’s Office Held Religious Institutions Accountable?

Abuse may occur in any setting where religious leaders occupy a position of trust and power. While the Catholic Church is not alone in receiving many allegations of sexual abuse perpetrated by members of its clergy, it has often been at the forefront of these discussions over the years. Recently, the Maryland Attorney General’s Office launched an in-depth investigation into the claims of child sexual abuse by Baltimore clergy members, and the resulting findings were sobering.

The 2023 Report on Child Sexual Abuse in the Archdiocese of Baltimore details a long history of widespread abuse by clergy and others associated with the Catholic Church within the Archdiocese of Baltimore. The report reveals that more than 150 different Catholic priests sexually abused hundreds of children over a span of 80 years. The abuse affected over 600 reported victims, although the actual number of victims is believed to be higher.

The report aims to hold accountable those responsible for perpetuating abuse and concealing it from public scrutiny. It highlights how clergy and church leadership engaged in a systemic cover-up, moving priests recognized as perpetrators to other parishes, failing to investigate or report abuse to law enforcement, and providing financial support to offending priests in retirement. The report emphasizes that church leaders prioritized safeguarding the institution’s reputation over protecting children from harm. While the report only covers a single organization and geographic area, its release to the public and the outcry it has generated underscores the importance of addressing past wrongdoings.

How Have the Changes in Maryland’s Laws Altered How Religious Institutions Handle Allegations and Protect Their Members?

Because the Maryland Child Victims Act provides clear pathways for sexual abuse survivors and their families to seek justice from individuals and institutions who perpetrated or allowed the abuse, many religious institutions have begun to implement more thorough abuse prevention and investigation policies. For example, the Archdiocese of Baltimore has established protocols for reporting suspected child abuse to law enforcement and has committed to complying fully with Maryland laws.

Additionally, the Archdiocese now also has an Independent Review Board, primarily composed of laypeople, which reviews allegations of abuse and helps shape child protection policies.

However, not all recent developments have been positive for abuse survivors. In anticipation of the lawsuits enabled by the Child Victims Act, the Baltimore diocese declared bankruptcy, which moved disputes over clergy abuse into bankruptcy court. Individuals who suffered abuse at the hands of employees of the Baltimore diocese should seek immediate legal counsel from a knowledgeable religious institution sexual abuse lawyer to learn more about their rights and any deadlines that may affect their cases

How Can Our Law Office Assist You?

The release of reports documenting extensive histories of clergy sexual abuse and cover-ups has increased public awareness and demand for transparency and accountability from religious institutions. Community members and advocates are working within religious organizations to promote policies and procedures that prioritize the safety and well-being of members, including establishing reporting and investigation mechanisms. However, the harm already done to victims of childhood sexual abuse within these organizations over the past decades must never be forgotten.

If you or a loved one suffered abuse as a child at the hands of a member of a religious institution, it is not too late to seek justice. Even if the perpetrator has passed away, the institution may be held accountable for failing to protect you. For a free, confidential consultation to learn about your legal options, contact our experienced attorneys at Andreozzi + Foote today by calling 866-311-8640.

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