6 Feb 2009

Victims Of Sexual Abuse Want Maryland Law Changed

CBS WJZ-TV 13 Baltimore - February 5, 2009

by Suzanne Collins

ANNAPOLIS, Md. (WJZ) ― Some adults who were sexually abused as children don't think there should be a time limit on filing suit over that abuse.

Suzanne Collins reports they want the current Maryland law changed.

In 1995, John Merzbacher, a former Baltimore Catholic school teacher, got life in prison for raping one of his students decades before.

But when the victim and nine others filed a civil suit against the church for not protecting them, the case was thrown out because too much time had passed.

Another victim, whose abuser, a priest, went to prison says it takes time to come forward.

"Then in 2002, as the scandal broke in Boston, reading all those stories of those courageous survivors coming forward, that's when I was finally motivated. After 35 years, that's when I was finally ready to tell," said David Fortwengler.

Many people came to Annapolis to testify for a bill Thursday extending the statute of limitations. Under current law, victims have until age 25 to sue. If passed, that would rise to age 50.

One person testifying is a former Philadelphia Eagles football player who only revealed a few years ago he was abused at 13.

"I was always thinking it would hurt my parents and siblings. I was so embarrassed I did something wrong," said Al Chesley, former NFL player.

And then in his mid 20s, Chesley says he still lived with the secret.

"At that time, I was in early professional sports. I was embarrassed. I knew he had pictures. I was always fearful," said Chesley.

The Catholic Church is opposed to extending the statute of limitations on civil lawsuits, saying it's hard to defend a case in court so many years afterward.

"Thirty years after an incident happens, witnesses could be dead. Their memories have faded. Documents are no longer in tact or available," said Mary Sullivan, Catholic Conference.

The church says victims want to break the Catholic Church, and the bill discourages the quick reporting of abuse -- which is best for all involved.

"The church has assets they're trying to protect instead of actually looking to protect the children who are abused," said Susan O'Brien, who represents victims.

While there is a statute of limitations for filing a civil suit, there is no time limit for filing criminal charges on felony child abuse.

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