The New York Times
By Vivian Wang
January 28, 2019
For more than a decade, Democratic lawmakers in New York have tried to allow victims of decades-old childhood sexual abuse to seek justice — only to meet fierce opposition from powerful interests including insurance companies, private schools and religious leaders from the Roman Catholic Church and Orthodox Jewish communities.
Those interests warned that if the Legislature were to permit victims to revive decades-old claims, churches, schools, and community organizations like the Boy Scouts of America would go bankrupt.
That warning found ready audiences in the State Senate, which was controlled by Republicans. For 13 years, the so-called Child Victims Act died there, despite anguished appeals from activists and survivors and bipartisan support in the Assembly.
But in November, Democrats won control of the Senate, vowing to make strengthening protections for children a priority.
And on Monday, party leaders intended to honor their vow. Ending the bitter, protracted battle, New York lawmakers were poised to approve the Child Victims Act, which would create a one-year “look-back window,” in which old claims that had already passed the statute of limitations could be revived.
The bill would also greatly extend the statute of limitations for future claims, allowing prosecutors to bring criminal charges until a victim turned 28, and permitting victims to sue until age 55.
“Finally we say to the victims that we hear you,” Senator Andrea Stewart-Cousins, the new Senate majority leader, said on Monday. “And we are really, really sorry it took so long.”
New York’s current protections for child victims are ranked among the most limited in the nation: Both criminal and civil charges must be brought before the survivor’s 23rd birthday. Only Mississippi and Alabama have similarly restrictive statutes of limitations, according to advocates. Many other states allow such claims to be brought decades later; nine have no statutes of limitations at all.
The Democrat-dominated Assembly had passed the Child Victims Act, which was first introduced in 2006, by wide margins several times, and Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, another longtime proponent of the bill, has promised to sign it into law.
Mr. Cuomo, who held a news conference on Monday morning to announce his support, said he was following the lead of Pope Francis, who has called for a fuller reckoning of crimes committed by priests and other church officials.
“You cannot deny what happened,” Mr. Cuomo said, flanked by nearly a dozen victims, many of whom are now in their 50s and 60s. “You cannot deny that there was significant abuse in the Catholic Church. You cannot deny that it was not handled appropriately. And you can’t deny that people were hurt.”
The American Insurance Association, Boy Scouts and Agudath Israel, an Orthodox Jewish group, have decried the Child Victims Act, claiming that it would expose their groups to excessive liability and to the spotty memories of people whose alleged abuse unfolded decades earlier.
New York’s Catholic Conference, led by Cardinal Timothy M. Dolan, has been the most forceful in its opposition; since 2012, it has spent more than $1.8 million on lobbyists in Albany to represent its interests.
Less than two weeks ago, Cardinal Dolan wrote an opinion piece in The Daily News declaring that he had to protect the church from Mr. Cuomo’s efforts to “single out the church and weaken its ministry.”
The state’s bishops later declared that they would support the Child Victims Act so long as it applied equally to public and private institutions — a provision that Senator Brad Hoylman and Assemblywoman Linda Rosenthal, the bill’s sponsors, have readily adopted.
“No one can say that this legislation unfairly targets one group over another,” Mr. Hoylman said on Monday.
Michael Polenberg, the vice president of government affairs at Safe Horizon, a New York City nonprofit that helps victims of sexual abuse and domestic violence, suggested that the church’s sudden turnaround was disingenuous.
“They fought the bill tooth and nail until it was going to pass,” he said.
The new legislation would put New York well within the upper half of states nationwide in terms of protections for child victims. But the law would still fall short of making the state a national leader, according to Michael Pfau, a lawyer who has represented victims of childhood sexual abuse. California introduced a one-year look-back window like New York’s in 2003 but is considering opening another one to accommodate the victims who could not be addressed in time.
Brian R. Toale, who has traveled to Albany for years to press legislators to pass the Child Victims Act, said the next year would require intense work to notify survivors across the state of the chance to take advantage of the look-back window. Mr. Toale, who grew up on Long Island, said the moderator of his high school’s radio club sexually abused him when he was 16 years old; it was not until he was 62 that he wrote to his school to tell them of the abuse.
“The work starts now. A different kind of work starts now,” Mr. Toale said. “A one-year window is a very short period of time. There’s a lot of people to get that information to.”