Last Thursday was a momentous day for survivors of sexual abuse in NY state. Finally, after years of languishing in a Catholic friendly legislature, a bill that would protect children passed and was signed into law by Governor Andrew Cuomo. In signing the bill at the New York Daily News headquarters in Manhattan, Cuomo noted that the Pope himself had called for measures such as the Child Victims Act to be enacted.
The symbolism of holding the signing ceremony at the Daily News should not be lost on anyone either. The press, and in NY particularly the Daily News, has been a stalwart in keeping the issue of child sexual abuse at the forefront in spite of the best lobbying efforts of the NY State Catholic Conference. Kudos to all the reporters who have investigated and reported on this important issue not only in the Empire State but across the country. The Child Victims Act would not be law today if journalists hadn’t done such fine work.
Now that the Child Victims Act is the law, what does it mean for survivors of sexual abuse?
First, the law provides a “look back” provision whereby an abuse survivor can sue the Catholic Church regardless of when the abuse took place. The look-back period will open six months from now and remain open for a year. So it opens Aug. 14.
Second, it extends New York’s statute of limitations to allow for criminal charges against sexual abusers of children until their victims turn 28 for felony cases, up from the current 23.
Third, it allows victims to seek civil action against their abusers and institutions that enabled them until they turn 55. This is particularly important since most if not all survivors can’t come forward before entering middle age as a result of the psychic trauma they suffered as children.
While most of the Catholic dioceses in the state have offered a compensation program to survivors, the new law allows survivors the opportunity to have their day in court. This is particularly important because it is only within the civil justice system that the actions of the priest perpetrator and the diocese who sponsored him are revealed. Allegations of cover-ups and transfers can be proven in a court of law through the release of church documents often found in such places as the church’s secret archives. The Catholic Church never freely releases these documents and they are often the most revealing and important documents related to child sexual abuse and the church’s role in that abuse. Without these documents, allegations remain just allegations. The discovery process which is only possible when a lawsuit is brought, reveals the operating procedures of the Catholic Church and how they handled reports of abusive priests.
For instance, the Diocese of Brooklyn released a list of more than 100 priests credibly accused of sexual abuse. The list was compiled after an internal review of diocesan files. This isn’t an independent accounting of sexual abusers in the diocese. It’s a list compiled by those who covered up abuse and transferred clergy from one parish to another. In announcing the list, Bishop DiMarzio noted that 60% of those on the list are deceased. He failed to address the whereabouts of the 40% who are not deceased. Where are they? Are they still abusing children?
This is precisely why the law had to be changed. The Catholic Church cannot police itself. That is the task of law enforcement as well as the court system.
If you or a loved one has been abused by a Catholic priest at any time in the past, please contact me immediately for a free initial consultation.
Admitted to practice law in all federal multidistrict litigation courts, the California State Bar and the Florida Bar. His philosophy is to provide aggressive, quality representations and seek fair compensation for individuals and their families who have suffered injury, death, or sexual abuse.