ALBANY – State lawmakers on Monday are poised to OK measures raising the statute of limitations in child sex abuse cases, as the Catholic Church is signaling it will drop its long-held opposition if public schools are specifically included with religious and private schools in one major provision of the legislation.
The bill's Senate sponsor said Thursday afternoon that such a demand is being met in the final bill.
Democrats, now in control of both legislative houses, have vowed since before the November elections that they would push through a series of bills that were blocked when the Republicans were in the Senate majority until this month. They’ve already done so on measures involving abortion, election laws and immigration.
The Child Victims Act, which has been opposed over the years by the Catholic Church and some other organizations, is set to be passed Monday by the Senate and Assembly. It will raise the statute of limitations that victims of child sex abuse can try to bring civil or criminal cases against their abusers and open a one-year “look-back” period – also called a “revival window” – for victims of any age to bring lawsuits over alleged sexual abuse that may have occurred decades ago.
“This is legislation that has been languishing for years under previous Republican majority leadership, and under the current Democratic leadership we recognize how important it is we are finally bringing justice to victims of child sexual abuse," said Sen. Timothy Kennedy, a Buffalo Democrat.
The New York State Catholic Conference, which has raised concerns about the one year look-back period, among other provisions, on Thursday declined comment until it could see the actual legislation that will be coming to the Senate and Assembly floors on Monday. The group represents the church’s bishops based in New York State.
The Catholic Church has maintained that previous efforts would carve out for the look-back period just private schools, and not the 700 public school districts in New York. The bill goes beyond just schools, whether private or not, to include other settings, including churches, Boy Scouts or other institutions.
Later Thursday, a spokesman for the Catholic Conference said the church would drop its opposition to the bill if public institutions are included in the look-back period in the final version set for Monday's floor debate in the two houses.
Asked if the final bill will include private along with public institutions covered by the civil litigation provisions, Sen. Brad Hoylman, a Manhattan Democrat and sponsor of the bill in the Senate, said: “Yes, unequivocally.”
“Now the bill is even-handed across both private and public institutions," he said in an interview. He said the final bill, not yet printed, will make clear that both kinds of institutions will be covered by the look-back period.
“That’s important because it’s a matter of simple fairness," the senator said.
Hoylman said New York is “an outlier” when it comes to statute of limitation laws for survivors of childhood sexual abuse. “Now, New York joins 48 other states in permitting survivors to come forward to have their cases heard," he said.
Assemblywoman Linda Rosenthal, a Manhattan Democrat and the bill's Assembly sponsor, agreed that the final bill when it emerges in the next 24 hours will cover public and private institutions. "I contend that they always were and others were saying they were not. So it will be very clear,'' she said in an interview Thursday afternoon.
"Child sexual abuse took place everywhere, not just in private institutions ... We want to make sure to allow survivors of abuse, whether at the hands of teachers or member of the clergy or any other institution, have a path to justice in the courts,'' Rosenthal added.
On Thursday night, the Catholic Church, citing amendments to the final bill, formally dropped its opposition to the Child Victims Act. Noting that the bill sponsors vowed to “include all survivors of abuse wherever it occurred’’ in the legislation, the state’s bishops said it was no longer opposing the bill and they “pray that survivors find the healing they so desperately deserve.’’
The church said it has long supported measures such as complete removal of criminal statute of limitations in abuse cases and funding for compensation programs for victims who might prefer such a route instead of litigation. “We will continue to advocate for those measures in future legislation,’’ the Catholic Conference said via Twitter.
Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo has supported the Child Victims Act and has vowed to sign such a measure into law. Cuomo on Thursday said that society has failed victims of childhood sexual abuse. "In New York, this ends now,'' he said.
The plan being considered would raise the statute of limitations for civil cases brought by people who say they were sexually abused as children up until they reach the age of 55, according to sources who spoke on condition of anonymity Thursday. Such cases can now be brought until the victim reaches age 23. An earlier measure, including one proposed by Cuomo, put the ceiling at 50 years of age. Victim rights groups say survivors of childhood sexual assaults can live in denial for decades before coming forward.
Rosenthal said she amended her bill from last year that set the civil statute of limitations at age 50 to 55. "Research has shown that people don't really come to terms with the abuse, don't remember it, can't handle it, block it from their memories of it until later in life because it is so painful. This gives them more time,'' she said.
Lawsuits could be brought against alleged abusers or institutions, such as a church or school.
On the criminal side, felony complaints involving acts of childhood sexual abuse could be brought by victims until they turn 28, a five-year increase from present law. It would be 25 years of age for misdemeanors.
"It's a new day. We're pleased to announce that, finally, adult survivors of child sexual abuse will have the opportunity to seek redress against their abusers and institutions – both public and private – that harbored them,'' Hoylman said in a written statement he released with Rosenthal.
One group that represents victims of child abuse celebrated the news Thursday that the Child Victims Act is set to be approved next week at the state Capitol.
“Well, survivors of New York, today is our day. Kids will be protected from systematic abusers, who can be brought to justice,’’ said Gary Greenberg, an Albany area businessman who founded Protect NY Kids years ago to push for the Child Victims Act.