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Child Victims Act top priority for new state Senate majority

A new Democratic majority in the state Senate means childhood victims of sex abuse might soon be able to sue the Catholic Church in clergy molestation cases that date back decades.

Senate Democrats said Wednesday that passing the Child Victims Act will be a top priority when they assume control in 2019. Democrats on Tuesday won at least 37 seats in the Senate, winning control of the 63-seat chamber for the first time in a decade.

“We’re looking forward to finally getting it passed with this new Democratic majority,” said Sen. Timothy M. Kennedy, D-Buffalo. “We have been calling for passage of the Child Victims Act for years. It has languished under the Republican majority. It is one of several initiatives we’re looking to fast-track.”

New York is among the most restrictive states in the nation when it comes to allowing victims of sexual abuse from years ago to file lawsuits against their alleged perpetrators.

Current law gives victims until their 23rd birthday the opportunity to bring civil and criminal cases. The Child Victims Act would expand it to age 50 for civil cases and age 28 for felony criminal cases.

“The Child Victims Act has been and continues to be a top priority for Senate Democrats. We look forward to passing it next year,” said Mike Murphy, spokesman for the Senate Democratic Conference.

The Assembly, which also is controlled by Democrats, already has passed a version of the Child Victims Act that includes a controversial look-back provision, which would open a one-year window during which victims could file lawsuits for cases potentially dating back decades, as has happened in some other states. And Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, a Democrat, included the Child Victims Act in his last budget proposal.

The chancery of the Buffalo Diocese. (Sharon Cantillon/News file photo)

But the “look-back” provision was a major sticking point among Republican leaders in the Senate, and the Child Victims Act never came up for a vote there. Institutions including the Catholic Church, some yeshivas, the Boy Scouts and the insurance industry lobbied hard against the look-back provision, while victims and their advocates said the provision was essential because the trauma of sex abuse makes it difficult for victims to come to grips with what happened until years later.

“There are no excuses for allowing this bill to wait any longer. These survivors have waited long enough,” said Kennedy. “This is about survivors of childhood sexual abuse seeking and receiving justice finally from the state of New York.”

A spokesman for the New York State Catholic Conference said Wednesday that passage of a Child Victims Act with a look-back provision appeared “very likely” with a Democrat-controlled Senate.

“As I said before the election, we’re happy and anxious to talk to legislators about resolving this issue in a way that survivors find acceptable, but also in a way that doesn’t threaten the ability of religious and not-for-profit organizations to provide services to the people of this state,” said Dennis Poust, the conference's director of communications.

The New York State Catholic Conference is the main lobbying and advocacy arm of the Catholic dioceses across the state.

Poust said the conference was working toward “something that is not unlimited in scope,” in terms of the amount of damages that could be awarded and the amount of time after the alleged abuse in which a civil case could be brought.

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