In hope of helping others, delegate reveals abuse as child
By Erin Cox / The Baltimore Sun
Del. C.T. Wilson stepped to the podium of a state Senate committee during a routine hearing, about to confess a secret..
He took a deep breath. "I don't really, really want to be here," he said.
He had weighed what might come of revealing his darkest truth to fellow lawmakers. At 43, he'd spent a lifetime building barriers of protection – 231 pounds of hulking muscle, hardly any close friends, training as a combat soldier, earning a law degree while working nights as a bouncer.
Wearing a gray suit, years removed from his daily nightmare, Wilson told the senators that as a child, his adoptive father repeatedly beat and then raped him.
"I can't describe to you the pain of being beaten, sodomized and molested for years," he said. Between ages 9 and 15, "I went from a difficult life to a downright hell."
The abuse at the hands of a man who died in 1999, Wilson said, made him an angry "monster" inside.
His bombshell testimony was in support of legislation to extend the statute of limitations on filing civil lawsuits in child sex abuse cases. It wasn't even his bill, but he was moved to testify in part over outrage that similar bills die every year without a vote.
"It was brave," said Republican Del. John Cluster, who was present when Wilson testified a second time, before a House committee. "You don't get a lot of personal stories down here. People don't really talk about themselves, not like that."
Colleagues knew Wilson, a second-term Democrat from Charles County, as gregarious but also intense, aloof and short-tempered. Wilson said he wanted them to see clearly that he is broken.
"The temper, and the anger ... and the incessant, right-below-the-surface volatility: These are my damages," Wilson told senators. "I wanted to put a face on the damage that the pedophiles cause, because it's lasting."
This year, the move to extend the ability of victims to sue their abusers faces the same opponents: a House committee chairman and the Catholic Church.
In Maryland, a criminal case of child sex abuse is treated like murder — there is no statute of limitations. But for victims to file a civil case and seek damages, they must do so before they turn 25. At least eight other states have longer statutes of limitations for civil cases.
Such civil cases have played pivotal roles in uncovering patterns of abuse because they allow lawyers to discover and document evidence that criminal prosecutions do not. They also allow victims whose abusers are locked up for crimes against others to gain a sense of closure.
Civil cases filed against the Catholic Community Middle School in Locust Point indicated Catholic and school officials knew of sexual abuse allegations against teacher John Joseph Merzbacher in the 1970s, but did not report it until Merzbacher was criminally investigated in the 1990s.
Merzbacher was ultimately tried in a single criminal case and was sentenced to four consecutive life sentences. A number of civil suits related to Merzbacher were filed, but they were never litigated. They were dismissed by a state appeals court, which ruled the statute of limitations for such claims had passed.
The Boston Globe's Pulitzer Prize-winning coverage in 2002 that exposed how Catholic Church officials covered up decades of abuse relied in large part on documents from 84 civil suits filed against the church and clergy.
Advocates for child sex abuse victims and researchers say many victims, like Wilson, do not fully recognize or cannot discuss their trauma until well into adulthood. The bill backed by Wilson would give victims until they turn 38 to file a child sex abuse lawsuit.
In 2003, Maryland extended the statute of limitations for child sex abuse civil cases by four years, allowing victims to file by age 25 instead of age 21. Since then, some lawmakers have tried to extend it further and faced stiff opposition, primarily from the Catholic Church.
When Del. Eric Bromwell sponsored a similar bill about eight years ago, he said he withdrew it after he was inundated by calls from fellow Catholics who questioned whether he was trying to "bankrupt" the church. One of those calls, he said, came from his grandmother in Ocean City.
"I was made to be someone who was an enemy of the Catholic Church," said Bromwell, a Baltimore County Democrat. "These were people who were hearing my name in church, hearing that there was legislation in Annapolis that would bankrupt the archdiocese."
Mary Ellen Russell, executive director of the Maryland Catholic Conference, said this week that lengthening the statute of limitations only further widens a disparity in Maryland between rights for victims abused by private individuals and those abused while in public care.
A separate law that governs lawsuits against state and local governments forbids any civil child sex abuse lawsuits against school districts, foster care services or other public institutions once the alleged victim turns 21.
"This [proposal] only affects private institutions," Russell said. "People really concerned about helping victims would want to have it apply equally."
Russell said the Archdiocese of Baltimore has settled 68 claims for $5.5 million since 2002, and provided another $3.2 million in counseling for alleged victims. The diocese, like the Archdiocese of Washington, has a policy of offering voluntary settlements regardless of the amount of time that has passed, she said.
House Judiciary Committee Chairman Joseph Vallario, a Catholic, said he has been offered no evidence that the statute of limitations should be extended. At some point, he said, it becomes impossible to build a defense against allegations of abuse that are decades old.
"You file a lawsuit against a priest who is dead. How does the church defend itself?" he asked.
As has happened for the past several years, the proposal this year has languished in committees without a vote. Key lawmakers say Wilson's courage has given the bill attention it often lacks.
"People should have the right to come forward," House Speaker Michael E. Busch said. "They've lived through trauma."
Wilson said he's had a few lawmakers thank him, a few others acknowledge that they, too, have been victims of sexual assault as children. But mostly, "I've had people kind of give me a wide berth, which is fine."
He wrote his story before in a self-published book, and he's told bits and pieces of it to audiences of foster children and counselors, particularly during the eight years he worked as a Prince George's County prosecutor.
Telling his peers in the legislature, he said, has reopened wounds he prefers not to confront. His friends say there has been a visible toll on Wilson in the days since he went public.
"Mind you, these are politicians," Wilson said later in an interview. "People will use anything and everything against you."
He never sought criminal or civil charges against his abuser, and said it wasn't until he was 40 — a dozen years after his adopted father died — that he fully understood he was a victim. He blames his two failed marriages, lost jobs and broken friendships on damage from the abuse. He says he can't trust his instincts because knows his tendency to fly into a rage isn't normal.
"You don't even know your life is that messed up until you become an adult. And by then, you're so busy trying to deny what happened," he said. "All I ask is that you please don't continue protect the monsters, like the ones who created this monster."