Child Victims Act Tries to Overcome Powerful Interests

Legal Analysis

After stalling in the New York State Legislature for more than a decade, a bill that would help provide justice for child victims of sexual abuse is once again on the agenda.

Victims and their supporters are hopeful that 2018 is the year the Child Victims Act finally passes.

The Child Victims Act would extend New York’s draconian statute of limitations for sex abuse victims to bring civil and criminal lawsuits against their attackers. Amidst the #MeToo movement and greater awareness of sexual misconduct by men in positions of power, some feel this may be the year the bill finally passes. But the legislation—which enjoys overwhelming public support—has influential opponents, including the Catholic Church, the Boy Scouts of America (BSA), and state senators.

Our attorneys are closely following the Child Victims Act and exploring legal action against the Roman Catholic Church, the Jehovah’s Witness church, and the Boy Scouts of America for cases in which they may have failed to prevent child abuse. If you or a loved one were abused by a member of one of these organizations, contact us to learn your rights.

Act Would Extend Legal Deadline for Victims

New York State has one of the most restrictive statutes of limitations for child victims of sexual assault. As the law stands, if a victim wants to file a criminal or civil lawsuit against their alleged attacker, they must do so by the time they are 23 years old.

The Child Victims Act would extend the statute of limitations to age 50 for civil cases and age 28 for criminal cases. It would also open a one-year window allowing old cases to be brought, regardless of the statute of limitations.

Victims and advocates say extending the statute of limitations is crucial because most child victims take years to speak publicly about their abuse.

“Most victims are not able to disclose their abuse to authorities until they are well into adulthood.”

“By requiring victims to come forward by their 23rd birthday, our law has the effect of protecting offenders,” says Prevent Child Abuse New York. “Most victims are not able to disclose their abuse to authorities until they are well into adulthood and are emotionally and financially free. Between 60 and 80 percent of adults who were sexually abused as children don’t disclose until they are adults.”

A longer statute of limitations could also help to prevent sex crimes. The typical offender molests on average 117 children in their lifetime. Most children do not report abuse, but if they are given more time as adults to take legal action, a victim’s pursuit of justice might stop an offender from assaulting other children.

Powerful Opponents Try to Keep Act Shelved

The Child Victims Act was first introduced in 2006. Twelve years later, proponents are hoping that 2018 is the year that the legislation finally passes.

83% of Democrats, 70% of Republicans, and 85% of Independents favor the bill.

But hopes were also high last year before the New York State Senate declined to vote on the bill. This year, Governor Andrew Cuomo has included the bill in the state budget plan, which could allow it to bypass Senate Republican opposition. The budget must be approved by April 1.

“If it’s done legislatively, I don’t think it would pass,” said Assemblyman Mike Miller, who sponsored the bill in 2017.

Public support for the Child Victims Act is strong. A recent poll shows that 83 percent of Democrats, 70 percent of Republicans, and 85 percent of Independents favor the legislation. Support in the Assembly, where the legislation passed 139 to 7 last year, is also strong. But Senate GOP opposition continues to be a stumbling block.

Republican Senator John Bonacic opposes the legislation because of the 365-day retroactive window. “What is difficult to deal with is the one-year window, which allows any victim of alleged sexual abuse to bring a civil complaint. We believe that would create an evidentiary nightmare for the integrity of the judicial system, allowing someone to seek restitution 30, 40, 50 years later,” said Bonacic in a statement.

Church Spent $2 Million to Kill Bill

The Catholic Church—which spent $2.1 million to lobby against the Child Victims Act from 2007 through 2015—shares concerns about the bill’s “look-back window.”

Dennis Poust, communications director for the New York State Catholic Conference, told the Village Voice, “You can go back sixty or seventy years, and the ability to defend claims from that long ago is very difficult. There are no caps in terms of monetary damages. We think it will hinder the ability to provide services to people today.”

Poust claims that the Catholic Church is the largest non-governmental provider of human services in New York. He also points out that many of New York’s dioceses have established reconciliation and compensation programs for survivors. The Archdiocese of New York’s Independent Reconciliation and Compensation Program (IRCP)—which has served as a model for similar survivor funds—is now closed. Others, such as the Diocese of Syracuse IRCP, are ongoing.

The compensation offers have a catch: claimants agree not to pursue legal action against the Church.

But the compensation offers have a catch: claimants agree not to pursue legal action against the Church, while the offenders remain anonymous and face no legal consequences. Critics say the compensation fund is a shrewd strategy to preemptively settle with victims who would be able to sue the church if the Child Victims Act passes.

The archdiocese announced in December 2017 that it had paid $40 million to 189 victims of the survivor fund with money secured through a loan. Earlier that year, the church petitioned for a $100 million mortgage on archdiocese-owned land on Madison Avenue.

The church’s concerns about potential bankruptcy garner little credibility—or sympathy—from supporters of the Child Victims Act. Marci Hamilton of the advocacy group Child USA has worked in every state where a look-back window was established. She calls the bankruptcy argument “cynical” and the loss of services argument “an outright lie” since the services are heavily government-subsidized.

Brad Hoylman, the main sponsor of the bill in the state senate, notes that a comparable law passed in California and has not resulted in “massive bankruptcies by institutions.” Hoylman furthermore raises the question of whether financial considerations should take precedent over moral ones.

“I don’t have a lot of sympathy for the bank accounts of groups that may have harbored abusers,” Hoylman said.

Yet even as sexual abuse allegations cause the Catholic Church to lose members, money, and the moral high ground, it still is a powerful force that influences state politics, one that no elected official wants as an enemy.

BSA Fights to Protect Pedophiles’ Identities

The Catholic Church has been relatively transparent about its opposition to the Child Victims Act. In addition to its public comments, the church last year filed a formal memo opposing the bill.

Other opponents, however, including the Boy Scouts of America, have operated in the shadows to kill the Child Victims Act.

The Boy Scouts paid a lobbying firm $12,500 per month to oppose the Child Victims Act.

According to the New York Daily News, the Boy Scouts hired lobbying firm Denton US at a cost of $12,500 per month to lobby against legislation that includes the Child Victims Act. Former NY Senator and Denton principal Craig Johnson registered to represent the Boy Scouts in Albany, the Daily News reports.

A Denton spokesperson told the Daily News that Johnson was hired to work on “a variety of legislative matters in New York that impact youth-serving organizations.”

The Boy Scouts has fought to protect the identities of suspected scoutmaster pedophiles. A 2010 lawsuit involving a former scout who was victimized by his scoutmaster prompted the 2012 release of the “perversion files.” These are thousands of BSA files pertaining to cases of molestation or sexual abuse of Scouts between 1965 and 1984.

While BSA maintains that the files have been used to prevent known pedophiles from rejoining the Boy Scouts after being blacklisted, at least 50 suspected abusers appear to have reentered the organization and were accused of molesting again, a Los Angeles Times review shows.

In 2015 the BSA settled a child abuse lawsuit brought by a former Scout, which kept additional “perversion files” covering 1991 to 2007 from being released. The organization says it’s fought to keep the records private to protect victims’ identities, witnesses, and anyone falsely accused of abuse. The group also asserts that “Scouts are safer because the barrier created by these files is real.”

But the BSA’s lack of transparency, and its efforts to kill the Child Victims Act, speak volumes about its priorities.

“An institution like the Boy Scouts should be more concerned with protecting young children from sexual abuse than protecting their interests by fighting legislation that protects kids and exposes sexual predators,” said abuse survivor Kathryn Robb. “After all, they call themselves a ‘values-based youth development organization,’ one would hope they value the safety of kids, truth, and justice!”

The Jehovah’s Witness church has similarly protected the names of alleged child abusers. The Watchtower Bible and Tract Society of New York—the parent corporation of the Jehovah’s Witnesses—has been hit with millions of dollars in fines and verdicts for failing to turn over documents containing thousands of names of alleged child abusers.

Victims are filing lawsuits against the Jehovah’s Witnesses and the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society for allegedly failing to prevent child sexual abuse.

Confidential Consultations for Abuse Victims

Because the passage of the Child Victims Act would create a one-year window in which victims of child sex abuse can pursue legal action, if the bill becomes law, it is vital that victims immediately reach out to our attorneys to initiate a claim.

To discuss a potential abuse lawsuit against the Catholic Church, the Boy Scouts of America, or the Jehovah’s Witness church, please contact us for a free, confidential consultation.

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