The statute of limitations is a part of the law that imposes a time limit on the filing of a legal claim. It is intended to protect the interests of all parties by guaranteeing that legal questions are addressed in a timely, fair manner. There are two types: criminal, which deals with the prosecution of an individual for a crime, and civil, which deals with lawsuits for money damages. The legislation with which the Church is concerned has to do with the civil statute of limitations.
Statute of Limitations
What is the statute of limitations?
What is the current law?
There is no time limit on the prosecution of felonies – that is, there is no criminal statute of limitations – in Maryland. A person who commits child abuse in this state can be prosecuted until the day he dies.
The civil statute of limitations – in which money damages are sought – is different. A civil child abuse suit against an individual or private institution may be filed at any time before the claimant’s 25th birthday. There is no limit on the amount of damages that may be recovered. Even if the time limit for a civil suit has expired, an individual can still be criminally prosecuted and, if convicted, jailed for the crime of child abuse.
What is the Church's position?
The Church supports holding abusers accountable and supports efforts to protect children. The Church opposes the extension or removal of the civil statute of limitations for child abuse and/or the creation of a “window” during which stale claims can be filed.
Statutes of limitations ensure fairness.
Statutes of limitation were crafted to protect the interest of all parties and to help guarantee that legal matters are resolved in a timely and fair fashion. They ensure that witnesses are available, memories are fresh, and documents are intact. They apply to nearly every type of legal claim, and are relied on by people and groups to plan their affairs. Maryland's highest court has recognized the important policies behind statutes of limitations and has previously ruled that it is unconstitutional to retroactively revive a lawsuit that had been barred by limitations, which is what the legislation in question proposes.
How does the Church assist victims?
The Maryland dioceses have long been committed to the treatment and healing of those who have been harmed through abuse. We apologize, offer immediate assistance and pay for counseling and therapy for victims, and in many cases for their families. We do this for as long as it is helpful, and regardless of the age of the incident. We have done this for years not because a law told us to, but because it is the right thing to do. We provide this support regardless of lawsuits and statutes of limitations. The dioceses have also made millions in direct payments to victims.
How does the Church protect children?
In all three Maryland dioceses, employees and volunteers undergo mandatory fingerprinting and criminal background checks, and they also receive training in how to create a safe environment and recognize abuse. Children – including those in Catholic schools and religious education programs – are taught to recognize abuse and protect themselves. Millions are spent by the dioceses annually on these efforts.
Extension/suspension of the civil statute of limitations does not protect children.
The bill to suspend and extend the civil statute of limitations contains no child protection measures. It has no provisions to increase awareness of child abuse, or to promote counseling, or to toughen criminal penalties, or to mandate background checks for employees and volunteers. Children would not benefit from this bill.
In fact, the legislation would undermine current child protection laws and policies that properly encourage the immediate reporting of child abuse. In Delaware, which passed a similar bill in 2007, no new perpetrators were discovered through the lawsuits that were filed.
Are private institutions treated differently?
Yes. Government agencies, including public schools, are afforded more protections against civil suits than private institutions. A civil action brought against most public employees or government agencies are subject to much shorter deadlines (often just 6 months) and limits on the amount of damages that may be recovered.