By Bob Allen
A mother who says her 3-year-old daughter was sexually abused at a prominent D.C.-area evangelical church urged Maryland lawmakers March 12 to extend the statute of limitations for bringing a civil suit against a child sexual abuser.
Pam Palmer — a plaintiff in a class-action lawsuit alleging abuse and cover-up at Covenant Life Church in Gaithersburg, Md., and parent organization Sovereign Grace Ministries — told the Judicial Proceedings Committee of the Maryland General Assembly her case was dismissed in 2013, primarily due to the state’s current statute of limitations.
Currently the law requires victims of child sex abuse to file a lawsuit within seven years of turning 18. The problem with that, Palmer and other witnesses testified, is that because of the peculiar psychological impact of violation by a family member, minister or trusted neighbor, many victims never talk about it until later in life than age 25.
“Sex abuse survivors often face lifelong psychological trauma, unable to deal with it until their 30s, 40s or even 50s,” Palmer said. “Sex abuse survivors have a high incidence of psychological disorders and suicide attempts, often needing years of therapy. When the abuse is incestuous, there are complex family issues involved that can delay reporting. When there is pressure to not report from religious leaders, it can take decades for victims to break free from indoctrination and come forward.”
Palmer says when she learned her 3-year-old daughter was sexually abused in 1993 her pastors advised her not to call the police. Six months later, the dismissed lawsuit claimed, the child was re-victimized by a “reconciliation” meeting organized with her abuser “as if a 3-year-old was supposed to forgive the perpetrator.”
“I was absolutely terrified,” daughter Renee Gambi remembered last June while distributing fliers outside the Southern Baptist Convention annual meeting in Baltimore. “As soon as I could, I crawled under my mom’s chair.”
Palmer said what happened at her church is egregious but not unique. “Minimization of sex crimes within Protestant churches is rampant across the United States,” she testified.
Palmer and Gambi traveled to Baltimore June 11 to bring attention to what Palmer described as a “good-old-boy” network among evangelical preachers she believes is just as effective in covering up clergy predators as the Catholic hierarchy.
They joined other representatives of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests in handing out fliers urging Baptist officials to “take child sex abuse cases more seriously.”
SNAP, the oldest and largest support group for clergy abuse victims, asked the Southern Baptist Convention to hire independent experts to review child sexual abuse scandals, immediately respond to child sexual abuse reports with openness and compassion and hire outside experts to study the feasibility of a denomination-wide database of clergy predators.
The Utah Legislature recently passed a bill eliminating the statute of limitations for lawsuits against perpetrators of child sexual abuse. Laws to extend the statute of limitations are under consideration in Georgia, Iowa, Pennsylvania and Texas. The Georgia and Texas bills include a one-time window of opportunity for those barred from suing under the current statute.
Delaware, Connecticut, Pennsylvania, Maine and Alaska already have either an extended statute of limitations or no statute at all.
Some oppose such measures because of their potential impact on churches and schools. Sexual abuse lawsuits have already bankrupted several Roman Catholic dioceses, with total compensation costing the Church billions of dollars.
The Maryland Catholic Conference denounced legislation “advanced by out-of-state money” that “would harm Church’s educational and social service ministries” and “make it easier to sue the Church.”