Child sexual abuse within the Catholic Church has cast a long shadow worldwide. In recent decades, countless survivors have courageously come forward to seek justice. This public reckoning is a powerful avenue to demand accountability from a millenniums-old institution that was once thought unassailable.
However, in the face of this heightened scrutiny many archdioceses around the country have enacted roadblocks to prevent survivors from obtaining justice. The Archdiocese of Baltimore is one of the most recent examples.
The Archdiocese of Baltimore’s troubling history of pervasive child sex abuse
The Archdiocese of Baltimore is the largest in Maryland and the oldest nationwide. It is among many that have come under scrutiny for a long and distressing history of child sexual abuse.
An extensive investigation by the Maryland Attorney General last spring revealed over 600 victims of sexual abuse at the hands of more than 150 priests within the Archdiocese of Baltimore over many decades. The 463-page report exposed a disturbing pattern of cover-ups and transfers that enabled further abuse. It is widely anticipated that more than 1,000 survivors will ultimately come forward, and that the depth of the Archdiocese of Baltimore’s historical transgressions has likely only begun to come to light.
A common roadblock in these cases: statutes of limitation
For many survivors of child sex abuse, the path to justice is obstructed by the statute of limitations, a legal deadline for filing claims. This deadline often expires before survivors of child sex abuse are ready to come forward.
Child sex abuses cases are unique and complex in this regard. Survivors often do not come to terms with their abuse for decades. It takes a significant amount of time to process and confront traumatic memories and other psychological barriers imposed by trauma.
Recognizing this barrier, Maryland’s legislature recently passed the Child Victims Act, which completely eliminates the statute of limitations for child sex abuse cases. This landmark law was designed to give survivors their long-overdue days in court. It was a significant, hard-fought victory for survivors and advocates.
Bankruptcy as a barrier to justice
Two days before Maryland’s Child Victims Act law went into effect, the Archdiocese of Baltimore filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy. This move shields it from civil litigation. Under federal law, the bankruptcy process takes precedence over civil claims. While discouraging, it should not prevent survivors from pressing forward on the path to justice.
Survivors can still pursue claims against the archdiocese through the bankruptcy process. However, they now face a strict deadline – May 31, 2024 – to file those claims. Those who miss this cutoff will likely be forever barred. This tight deadline undermines the intent of the Child Victim’s Act to give survivors the opportunity to pursue justice without a deadline.
As a result of the bankruptcy proceedings, survivors will also be stripped of their opportunity to have their cases heard by juries. They will not be able to tell their stories as they would in court, which is a critical aspect of healing and closure for many.
Additionally, given the lengthy nature of bankruptcy proceedings, survivors who file claims may face years-long delays in getting the compensation they deserve.
The path forward for survivors
Survivors of child sex abuse have long carried a weight that nobody should have to bear. Their resilience, strength and courage inspire a call to action for justice and healing. By holding institutions such as the Catholic Church accountable, they have made great strides toward a safer world for all.
The bankruptcy process, while daunting, is a way to pursue that accountability while securing compensation for the tremendous harm that survivors have endured. It will also provide complete transparency into the Archdiocese of Baltimore’s assets, which preliminary estimates value at nearly $250,000 million. Despite setbacks, survivors should not give up hope.
Your voice matters, and our team will listen
At this pivotal moment, the support of a knowledgeable and compassionate legal team is indispensable for survivors. Our lawyers at Sanford Heisler Sharp, stand ready to vigorously advocate for survivors.
As a public interest law firm, we are committed to holding institutions accountable. With sensitivity and determination, our attorneys in our Sexual Violence, Title IX and Victims’ Rights Practice Group will fight for the rights of survivors despite any hurdles that may arise.