The sexual abuse of child victims is going to be in the news again over the coming months as advocates for a more expansive and humane approach in New York put pressure on legislators to make legal changes.
In this area, that pressure is going to be placed on two Republican members of the state Senate, John Bonacic and Bill Larkin. Their party and their majority has been instrumental in blocking efforts to change the laws for years and now a new organization, New Yorkers Against Hidden Predators, is vowing to start asking the two and others in the Senate why.
The issue is as simple as it is emotional. New York abuse victims must seek criminal charges or sue before they turn 23, much too early, advocates say, for many traumatized abuse survivors to come forward. A bill that the Assembly passed in a 139-7 vote in June would give victims until age 28 to seek prosecution and until age 50 to sue culpable institutions. It also would have given previously time-barred victims one year to bring cases.
Those who have successfully opposed the change, most notably the Catholic Church, which has spent an enormous amount of money on lobbying, argue that this opportunity for victims would be what they like to call an “evidentiary nightmare,” a challenge courts would be unable to negotiate.
But any case can bring such challenges. While it is true that the longer a person waits to lodge a charge, the harder it might be to come up with witnesses and evidence, which is always the case in court. If the victim cannot find people to testify, if evidence is not available, then the courts would not be able to proceed. But those who deal with victims know that it can take decades for victims to get the courage to act and that these arbitrary limits have nothing to do with justice.
The real reason that legislators have been lobbied so heavily to keep New York law the way it is concerns not justice but money.
“The bishops feel strongly that we need to do more to protect children from abuse and give survivors of abuse more time to seek justice,” a spokesman for the Catholic Conference said. “Our only objection is with that retroactive window which comes without any caps on either time or dollars. Any organization that deals with children would be looking at potential catastrophic liability when you’re looking at cases from the ‘50s and ‘60s.”
The Archdiocese of New York prefers to make its own rules when it comes to such compensation and recently announced that it had paid about $40 million to 189 people who identified themselves as victims of clergy sex abuse. The payouts averaged $211,600.
The Archdiocese said that when it comes to sex abuse by priests and others, “Fortunately, for the Catholic Church, such horrors are now mostly confined to the past.”
Senators can either take that as fact or open the courts to see if there are other victims. If they believe the church, they should at least explain why and not duck the issue by avoiding a vote.