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Hundreds of people are set to sue the Catholic Archdiocese of Baltimore for sex abuse

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

Multiple U.S. states are rethinking how long victims should have to seek damages from sex abusers in civil court. Maryland is the latest state to abolish its civil statute of limitations, as hundreds of people are preparing to sue the Catholic Archdiocese of Baltimore for damages. WYPR's Scott Maucione has more.

SCOTT MAUCIONE, BYLINE: All over Maryland, billboards, TV commercials and social media ads are popping up, informing people they have the right to sue the Catholic Church. The Maryland General Assembly passed a law this year abolishing the statute of limitations on civil suits for sex crimes. It coincided with the report that more than 600 children were abused by members of the Archdiocese of Baltimore. Sixty-four-year-old Kit Bateman was one of those victims. He says he was abused at a Catholic high school in Baltimore when he was a teenager. Going to church was his favorite thing to do as a child. He sang in the choir and was an altar boy. But all of that changed after the abuse.

KIT BATEMAN: They took my innocence. They took my soul. They took my ability to celebrate the life of Jesus every day like I liked to do. For 50 years, it was gone.

MAUCIONE: A 2014 study found that the average age for reporting child sex abuse is 52. Bateman started coming to terms with his abuse around the age of 60, when he saw stories about sex abuse in Pennsylvania Catholic churches. He spent decades in complete shutdown because of what happened to him, and it took his faith in God to come forward.

BATEMAN: I had been so guilt-ridden my entire life from my silence, thinking that my silence had allowed the victimization of other children and that it was my fault.

MAUCIONE: Maryland's the most recent state to acknowledge that previously accepted time limits for suing sexual abusers are too short for how long it takes people to come to terms with the trauma they faced. Since 2016, 10 other states have expanded the time people have to file civil suits against sex abusers or abolished the limitations altogether. Bateman decided he wanted to sue the church when he saw the Baltimore archbishop trying to defeat the law abolishing age limits on civil suits for sex crimes.

BATEMAN: When I saw that, I thought, wow. What about my soul that you all took from me when I was 14? He did not understand, for a man of God does not understand repentance.

MAUCIONE: The renewed ability to bring suit in Maryland could pay for care for a lifetime of suffering.

ELIZABETH LETORNEAU: So we know that child sexual abuse increases the risk for serious health problems, including mental health problems like post-traumatic stress disorder and depression.

MAUCIONE: Elizabeth Letorneau is the director of the Moore Center for the Prevention of Child Sexual Abuse at Johns Hopkins University.

LETORNEAU: Child sexual abuse takes a real financial toll on survivors, who, over the course of their lives, will earn nearly $300,000 less than people who did not experience child sexual abuse.

MAUCIONE: Maryland's new law caps damages at $1.5 million, but it doesn't set a limit for what institutions have to pay for medical expenses like the cost of therapy. The Baltimore Archdiocese declined to comment for this piece, but it could be facing serious payouts. Analysts familiar with sexual assault say there are possibly thousands of victims who still haven't come forward. Suzanne Sangree is a senior counsel with Grant & Eisenhofer, a firm representing victims in Maryland.

SUZANNE SANGREE: The Archdiocese of Baltimore is the first archdiocese in the New World. It certainly was the first cathedral here. And it's got enormous resources.

MAUCIONE: There have been 20 settlements in the U.S. to victims of dioceses and archdioceses since 1994, totaling $1.2 billion. Lawyers in the Maryland area say they already have hundreds of victims who are prepared to sue but won't be able to file suits until the new law takes effect this fall. Kit Bateman recently joined a nondenominational church and is recapturing the love for faith-based community he missed all those decades.

BATEMAN: It's religious fuel for me - keeps me going. It's a community that's just different. It's a family.

MAUCIONE: He says his confrontation with what happened helped start the revival in his worship. For NPR News, I'm Scott Maucione in Baltimore. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Scott Maucione
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