Federal Judge Calls for State Supreme Court to Review Maryland Child Victims Act Constitutionality

Maryland Child Victims Act was enacted last year, allowing child sex abuse lawsuits to be filed by survivors, regardless of how long ago the acts occurred.

To speed up an inevitable constitutional challenge to Maryland’s Child Victims Act (CVA), which removed the statute of limitations from any child sex abuse lawsuits filed in the state, a federal judge has cleared the way for a case against the Mormon church to move straight to the Maryland Supreme Court.

The Maryland Child Victims Act of 2023 went into effect at the beginning of October, allowing claims to be filed against abusers and institutions that enabled the conduct, regardless of how long ago the acts occurred. The legislation has been hailed as a landmark achievement for survivors of childhood sexual abuse, since many individuals are unable to reach a point where they seek justice until long after the typical statute of limitations has expired.

The new law passed the legislature in April 2023, just days after a long-awaited Baltimore Archdiocese child sex abuse report was released by the Maryland Attorney General, which detailed information about Catholic priests that abused children in Maryland over the last 60 years, including the names of 146 priests, deacons, seminarians and others who have been credibly accused by more than 300 victims and witnesses that came forward during the investigation.

Since its passage, a flood of lawsuits have been filed against the Catholic church, private schools, the state’s juvenile justice system and other individuals responsible for exposing children to known sexual predators, even when the assaults occurred decades ago. However, a number of defendants are challenging the constitutionality of the Act, arguing that removing the statute of limitations violates due process protections.

One of the lawsuits filed since the Act was passed was against the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, indicating that a minister from a Mormon church in Camp Springs, Maryland, sexually assaulted a young girl. The lawsuit indicates that a probation officer had previously warned the church that the minister, Frederick Edvalson, should be kept away from children before the incident occurred.

Edvalson, now deceased, pled guilty to felony sex charges in 1985. However, the civil lawsuit filed against the Mormon Church said the organization failed to take minimal steps to keep the girl safe.

The Mormon church challenged the lawsuit, saying that the claim was time-barred, and that the new Maryland law is unconstitutional.

Judge Sends CVA Challenge to Supreme Court

The Maryland CVA includes a provision that allows an interlocutory appeal to be immediately pursued following any order denying a motion to dismiss based on a defense that the Maryland statute of limitations or statute of repose bars the claim, or that the legislative action reviving the claim is unconstitutional.

An interlocutory appeal allows the higher courts to consider the case before any final judgment is rendered in the trial court. While this measure will introduce substantial delays before survivors of sexual abuse are able to obtain justice, it will also avoid the need for each individual to recount their trauma at trial before the Maryland Supreme Court evaluates the constitutionality of the new law.

Last week, Maryland Chief U.S. District Judge James Bredar issued a Memorandum and Order (PDF), granting the Maryland attorney general the ability to intervene in the case, which will be expedited to the Maryland Supreme Court.

“The constitutionality of the CVA is dispositive to the question of whether Plaintiff’s claims are time-barred,” Judge Bredar wrote. “And there has been no appellate decision on the CVA’s constitutionality – unsurprisingly, as the statute is less than a year old.”

The Judge’s order asks the state Supreme Court to answer whether the CVA constitutes an “impermissible retroactive abrogation of a vested right in violation of Article 24 of the Maryland Declaration of Rights”. Article 24 addresses the right to due process.

The parties were given 14 days from March 18 to file objections to the question. The case will be stayed until the Maryland Supreme Court renders a decision or decides not to hear the case.

Catholic Church Also Appealing Maryland Child Victims Act

Judge Breyer’s order came just days after a state judge in Prince George’s County ruled that the new law is constitutional in a different lawsuit filed against the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Washington, which covers part of Maryland. Immediately after the ruling, the church issued a statement announcing plans to appeal the decision to the state Supreme Court.

The state has been prepared for such a challenge since the law was originally passed, and Maryland Attorney General Anthony Brown vowed to defend the state law’s constitutionality. Brown’s office filed a brief in support of the law in the Prince George case and others.

Observers believe that the Maryland Supreme Court may hear the appeal before the end of the year.

However, some cases are facing a time limit of a different nature. The Archdiocese of Baltimore has borne the brunt of the litigation since the new law was passed, and declared Chapter 11 bankruptcy almost immediately after it went into effect.

Because victims cannot file lawsuits against the entity while it is undergoing bankruptcy proceedings, survivors only have until the end of May to file their child sex assault claim against the Archdiocese of Baltimore.

While similar statute of limitations laws have also been enacted in a number of other states, including New York, New Jersey, California and Louisiana, other states are still debating similar bills that would allow survivors to hold abusers and entities that enabled their conduct accountable.

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