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Editorial: Pass the Child Victims Act

Anyone who doubts the need for the state Legislature to pass the Child Victims Act needs only to consider the stingy compensation the Catholic Diocese of Buffalo offered to Michael F. Whalen Jr.

Whalen’s report of long-ago sexual abuse by a priest opened the floodgates in Buffalo, revealing the scope of child sexual assaults committed by priests and covered up by bishops. To compensate him for a life that Whalen says was ruined by the Rev. Norbert F. Orsolits – and who would dispute him? – the diocese offered less than $50,000.

Whalen said he felt revictimized by the offer and rejected it as an insult to him and his family. He did it knowing he might then receive nothing, but hoping that the new state Legislature, which will be seated next month, will approve the Child Victims Act, allowing a longer look back on such cases than the law currently allows. That’s what the Legislature should do and, indeed, what it seems prepared to do.

The Catholic Church in New York initially opposed the law, fearing the costs of being held to account for what too many of its priests have done. Lately, it has expressed some willingness to support some version of it.

With the law, the bill will start to come due for decades of assaults that are now being investigated not only as profoundly immoral, but potentially criminal. That’s not just for the church, but other organizations and individuals who have escaped liability for conduct that has ruined lives.

The state Assembly has previously approved the legislation. Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo has said he wants it passed. The state Senate, though, long in Republican control, has opposed the measure.

That’s about to change. In January, Republican control will be – for better or worse – history. Democrats swept their opponents from power in November’s elections and they have indicated that the Child Victims Act is a top priority. Whatever other problems single-party control of state government may produce – and it will produce them – this is a welcome development.

It’s not about the church. It’s about the victims. Survivors of child sexual abuse frequently feel a pervasive sense of shame and carry that burden into adulthood. They keep their secret, fearing the consequences of sharing it.

It’s a phenomenon upon which abusers and their enablers cynically rely, especially when they are trusted figures in a child’s life: a family member, a Boy Scout leader, a priest or other religious figure. The child, confused and frightened, may remain in the sway of that person or wonder why anyone would believe him or her over the denials of a powerful authority figure. In cases such as Whalen’s and the other victims of the Catholic Church’s terrible sins, who is more trusted than a priest?

The Child Victims Act recognizes that the existing statute of limitations provides cover to those who prey on children. It’s long past time to change that dynamic.

New York is among the most restrictive states in allowing victims of sexual abuse from years ago to call their alleged perpetrators to account. As the law stands, victims have until their 23rd birthday to bring civil and criminal cases. Whalen was 52 before he found the nerve to come forward. The Child Victims Act would extend the age to 50 for civil cases and to 28 for felony criminal cases.

Part of the controversy over the law is the inclusion of a one-year “look-back” period during which victims could file lawsuits for assaults dating back decades. The Catholic Church, the Boy Scouts, the insurance industry and others lobbied hard against that provision, but other states have included it. There can be no good reason for New York to refuse to join them.

Indeed, those organizations opposing that law can be presumed to fear its repercussions, knowing that abuses occurred and that no one rescued those children. They are telegraphing their own sense of shame but asking for their actions and inactions to be exempted from a law that is specifically meant, as best as possible, to settle accounts that are long out of balance.

This is a case of black and white. New York should pass the Child Victims Act promptly.

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