‘The Keepers': What’s the Statute of Limitations on Child Sex Abuse Cases?

Here’s what you need to know about how the Maryland statute of limitations stopped victims of Father A. Jospeh Maskell from suing the Baltimore Archdiocese

(Warning: This post contains some spoilers from the Netflix documentary “The Keepers.”)

If a newly passed Maryland law had been in effect in 1994, the victims of Father A. Joseph Maskell in “The Keepers” might have successfully sued the Baltimore Archdiocese for $40 million.

“The Keepers,” Netflix’s new documentary series, isn’t just about figuring out who killed Sister Cathy Cesnik in 1969. It’s also about a sexual abuse scandal in a Baltimore Catholic high school, in which the man accused, Father Maskell, was never charged.

According to director Ryan White, more than 40 victims have come forward in the Maskell case. But in 1993, when allegations against Maxell first made their way into the justice system in Baltimore, only two victims had come forward. They accused Maskell of abusing them in the late 1960s at Archbishop Keough High School.

But despite their testimonies and reportedly more than 100 other witnesses and victims that police interviewed, no charges were ever filed.

Sharon A.H. May of the Baltimore City State’s Attorney’s office was in charge of the case. In the documentary, says she decided not to press charges against Maskell, citing a lack of evidence. So the two victims, who went by Jane Doe and Jane Roe in the case, sued Maskell and the Baltimore Archdiocese for $40 million in 1994.

But the suit never went to trial. The judge in the case ruled the statute of limitations had expired, and the lawsuit was thrown out. So just what is the statute of limitations on child sex abuse claims in Maryland?

The details are a bit confusing in the case of the 1994 lawsuit featured in “The Keepers,” which was brought by Jean Hargadon Wehner (“Jane Doe”) and Teresa Lancaster (“Jane Roe”). In Maryland, there is no statute of limitations in felony cases of sex abuse for criminal charges (on misdemeanor cases, it’s one year from the event). So if May had chosen to pursue criminal charges, it wouldn’t matter how much time had passed since the abuse took place — in this case, around 25 years.

But the 1994 case was a civil suit instead of criminal, with the two plaintiffs seeking damages. In Maryland, the statute of limitations on civil cases for child sexual abuse starts not from the actual incident, but from when the person filing the complaint became legally an adult. In 1994, the statute allowed for a suit to be filed within seven years of the complainant’s 18th birthday.

That means in Maryland, you only had until you turn 25 to bring a civil suit in child sexual abuse cases.

By 1994, the statute of limitations for Jean and Teresa had long since run out. But their lawyer, Beverly Wallace, argued that because Jean was unable to remember the abuse until much later because she’d repressed her memories, the statute of limitations shouldn’t have applied to the case. The argument was Jean couldn’t have brought a suit sooner because she couldn’t remember what had happened to her. But the judge ruled otherwise, and the lawsuit was thrown out.

In the documentary, Maryland State Rep. CT Wilson introduced a bill in 2015 to lengthen the statute of limitations on civil lawsuits for child sexual abuse cases from seven to 13 years. As noted in “The Keepers,” that bill died in committee, however, and never came to a vote.

In April, however, Wilson did manage to get the bill through. Maryland now allows civil suits in child sex abuse cases to be filed until the victim turns 38, moving the bar from seven years to 20.

Recently, the Baltimore Archdiocese officially acknowledged Maskell’s abuse and made settlements with several of his victims. According to the Baltimore Sun, the archdiocese paid out $472,000 in settlements to 16 of Maskell’s victims, plus another $97,000 in counseling assistance. Among the victims who received settlements is Donna VonDenBosch, one of the women who appears in “The Keepers.”

Having trouble keeping all the names and faces in “The Keepers” straight? Check out our gallery of all the major players below.

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