Chief Program Officer Liz Roberts Discusses New York's Child Sex Abuse Statute of Limitations Law
Posted on: Wednesday, December 14, 2011
Scandals renew NY push to protect sex victims
With child sex-abuse scandals rocking college sports programs, state lawmakers plan to revisit lifting time limits on victim lawsuits, an issue pitting the Catholic Church and other institutions against advocates for children.
Fearing $1 billion in payouts like dioceses collectively faced after California lifted its statute of limitations, the church along with schools, municipalities, synagogues and others with potential liability helped to block similar measures in New York. The Assembly three times passed legislation that died in the Senate.
Assemblywoman Margaret Markey, a Queens Democrat, is chief sponsor of the current bill, which includes a one-year window for victims to file previously time-barred claims. She says abuse is an issue across society, and the scandals at Penn State, Syracuse University and other schools undercut the claim her bill is anti-Catholic.
"It is something we have to deal with as a society and protect our children," Markey said. She said research shows that 20 percent of children are affected, the trauma is lifelong and for many victims that one-year window is the only way to get justice. She has sought support for her measure from the Cuomo administration.
On Wednesday, Gov. Andrew Cuomo said he will introduce legislation to require college and high school coaches to report possible child sex abuse to police. "Parents need to be sure that their children are safe in programs and activities that are organized by and at colleges," he said.
According to the governor's office, college employees aren't required to report suspected child sex abuse now to authorities, and while public school teachers are mandatory reporters, that doesn't apply to coaches. Cuomo said his proposal will close that gap.
The governor later said he will also consider addressing the statute of limitations, but that is "a balance" that has to consider that memories fade and evidence grows old.
Assemblymen James Tedisco and George Amedore made a similar reporting proposal in November.
In the recent scandals, a former Penn State football coach was charged with sexually abusing boys on campus, while a former Syracuse basketball coach is under federal investigation after three men accused him of molesting them as boys.
The current statute of limitations in New York for bringing civil claims for child sex abuse is five years after the incident has been reported to police or five years after the victim turns 18. That was also the old standard for felony prosecutions, until state lawmakers in 2008 lifted it altogether for first-degree rape, aggravated sexual abuse and course of sexual conduct against a child.
Markey's bill would extend the time bar prospectively for civil suits and some additional felony prosecutions to five years after the victim turns 23.
Sen. Stephen Saland, a Poughkeepsie Republican who is chairman of the Senate Codes Committee, said the committee is working on an alternative package of bills he hopes to introduce in the next few weeks. They will probably address required reporting of abuse and expanding the statute of limitations on the criminal side, but the details aren't firm yet, he said.
"The much larger issue, the one I've been attempting to grapple with ... is how do you deal with persons who have authority or positions of trust," Saland said.
"In dealing with the broader issues that emanate from the misdeeds if not heinous acts that have occurred by authority figures, we're not merely talking about the clergy or coaches, we're talking about a universe that is really rather large."
Dennis Poust, spokesman for the New York State Catholic Conference, said the U.S. Supreme Court ruled against retroactively changing criminal statutes of limitations, and it's no more fair to do that with civil claims. "We think it's a bad policy having a window that can go back a half century," he said.
When California did it in 2003, lawsuits were brought against priests long dead and the volume of cases forced dioceses into settlements, paying out close to $1 billion, Poust said. "It becomes impossible for the institution to defend itself."
The conference, representing New York's Roman Catholic bishops, supports changing the statutes of limitations prospectively to age 28, Poust said. Legislative proposals that would make private institutions retroactively liable while exempting schools and other public institutions would be unfair, he said. "There's a zero tolerance policy now in the church. We have taken vigorous steps to solve the problem," he said.
Sen. Ruth Hassell-Thompson, a Bronx Democrat and sponsor of another bill to lift the civil time bar for one year, said the goal is to hold institutions responsible for any suppression or coercion in keeping incidents quiet. "For instance, there have been incidences in schools where teachers have been accused and rather than have them fired or brought up on charges, what they would do is transfer them to another school or another division," she said.
At Safe Horizon in New York City, chief program officer Liz Roberts said employees work every year with thousands of children who have been sexually abused as well as thousands of adult survivors. "Approximately one in four girls and one in six boys will experience sexual abuse in the course of their childhood," she said, most often by someone in or known to the family.
The group strongly favors extending the statute of limitations. Victims want to hold institutions responsible, prevent the abuse from happening to others and have the opportunity to stand up to their abusers and be believed as part of their own healing, Roberts said. "Clients have shown us over and over again that it takes time to come to terms with abuse and it is often not until well into adulthood that a survivor is safe enough and can muster the fortitude to come forward and name their abuser."