ALBANY The Roman Catholic Church is opposing efforts in New York to allow sex abuse accusers to file lawsuits after the statute of limitations has expired, warning of dire financial consequences if the state allows plaintiffs to sue decades after the purported abuse occurred.
Currently in New York, victims of child sex abuse have until five years after they turn 18 to file a lawsuit. The same statute of limitations applies to most child sex crimes.
A bill pending in the state Assembly would eliminate the statute of limitations on abuse cases going forward — and create a one-year window to allow anyone to file lawsuits no matter when the abuse occurred. Supporters gathered Wednesday in Albany to push for the bill.
A similar law in California passed in 2002 resulted in dioceses there paying $1.2 billion in legal settlements.
Such a law in New York would cause the church “catastrophic financial harm,” according to a statement of opposition from The New York State Catholic Conference, which argues a one-year window would do nothing to stop new cases of abuse while “enriching trial lawyers” by allowing them to file suits relating to “stale lawsuits regarding long-ago charges.”
“It is wrong to hold innocent people accountable today for the evil actions of long-dead individuals from a different generation,” the statement reads.
Supporters, however, note that many potential plaintiffs could be people in their late 20s, 30s and 40s who were abused by people still in a position of power over minors.
“The victims aren’t dead. They’re alive, and suffering, and they want their day in court,” said Sally Butler, a Dominican sister from Brooklyn who says her foster son was abused by priests as a child. “The bishops say this is anti-Catholic. What it really is is a civil rights movement for children.”
In its statement, the conference also argues that the law unfairly targets private groups like the church and the Boy Scouts because of existing statutes that require the prompt filing of lawsuits against public entities.
The bill has long languished on the legislative agenda and faces significant opposition in the Senate. The bill’s sponsor, Assemblywoman Margaret Markey, is hoping for support this year from an unlikely ally: Pope Francis. Markey wrote to the Vatican asking for the pope’s help after he announced a visit to the U.S. this fall.
As an alternative, the church supports a second bill that would, going forward, extend the statute of limitations to 10 years after the victim turns 18. That bill does not create a window for lawsuits filed after the current statute of limitations has passed.