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New York lawmakers pass Child Victims Act: 'This bill is about survivors'

ALBANY – Michael F. Whalen Jr. hadn’t even heard of the Child Victims Act last February, when he told reporters in Buffalo that the Rev. Norbert F. Orsolits had sexually abused him as a teenager nearly four decades ago.

But on Monday, Whalen traveled by train to Albany to be recognized for his role in getting the controversial legislation adopted by New York State lawmakers.

“For me, personally, if I helped it along in any way possible by stepping forward almost a year ago, then yeah, I’m so glad to see it,” Whalen said. “I’m sad to see it’s taken 12 years for it to happen.”

Whalen’s news conference across the street from the Buffalo Diocese’s headquarters led to Orsolits’ admission to The Buffalo News later the same day that he had molested probably dozens of boys.

The Child Victims Act, which unanimously passed the Senate Monday afternoon and later passed the Assembly by a vote of 142-3, extends the statute of limitations for prosecuting child molesters.

It also provides victims like Whalen – time-barred from filing civil suits – a one-year window to sue private and public institutions, like churches and schools, over abuse that may have occurred decades ago.

Republican Assembly member Andy Goodell of Jamestown was one of three state lawmakers who voted against the measure.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo was expected to sign into law the bill that changes the statutes of limitations for civil lawsuits and criminal prosecutions over childhood sexual abuse from age 23 to 55 and 28, respectively.

Whalen joined other survivors of childhood sexual abuse in the Senate gallery to watch the bill pass, the culmination of a generation of pleading, cajoling and protesting.

New York's Catholic bishops successfully lobbied for more than 12 years to keep versions of the Child Victims Act bottled up in the Republican-controlled State Senate. The GOP leaders did not allow the bill to come to a floor vote although the Assembly had passed the measure. After Democrats took control of the Senate majority this month, they pledged that passing the Child Victims Act would be among their top priorities.

“You will be able to name your abuser, the institution that harbored them and moved them to other institutions so they could harm other children," said Assemblywoman Linda Rosenthal, a Manhattan Democrat and sponsor of the bill in the 150-member Democratic-run chamber.

“We have come to the day where justice will prevail," she said.

The Child Victims Act includes provisions to:

  • Expand the statute of limitations so that victims, prospectively, can bring civil cases up until their 55th birthday. It’s now age 23.
  • Increase the statute of limitations for criminal cases until, in the case of felonies, the 28th birthday of the victim, up from age 23 now.
  • Opens a one-year look-back period, which will start six months after the law takes effect, in which victims of any age can bring civil lawsuits against individuals or public and private institutions – from churches to public school districts – for abuse that may have occurred many decades ago.

The Senate GOP had long blocked the Child Victims Act, in part over concerns the look-back period would open litigation floodgates and bankrupt some dioceses, schools or other institutions.

Victims celebrate bill's passage

Groups at the Capitol Monday cited a wave of high-profile cases in the past decade, from Penn State to USA Gymnastics to the coverup of alleged clergy molestation cases over several decades in the Buffalo Diocese.

"It became harder and harder for the narrative to be, ‘You should have come out sooner or you should have told somebody sooner.’ There’s been a greater recognition that there’s a lot of reasons why somebody might not be able to do so," said Michael Polenberg of Safe Horizon, which provides support and advocacy for abuse victims.

Opposition in the past focused in part on potential costs of civil litigation for institutions with clergy or employees or volunteers who may be long dead and can’t be a part of defending sexual abuse cases. But Polenberg said sexual abuse cases will not get any preferential treatment in courts.

“This bill is about survivors. This bill is about somebody who’s been grievously harmed to go to court to seek criminal or civil damages. This is not a bill about bankrupting institutions," Polenberg said.

During floor speeches, five legislators noted they were victims of sexual abuse.

Melanie Blow, one of the child abuse survivors at the Capitol to witness the passage of the legislation, grew up in Wyoming County. She said she was raped as a teenager by a man who has since been suspected of abusing another child. By the time she brought the case to police, Blow was 24 – beyond the statute of limitations.

Blow now lives in Monroe County and works with the Stop Abuse Campaign to prevent child abuse through education and public policy efforts.

“I’m certainly going to investigate suing my abuser and to making (the case) public. Most of us are not looking to get money from this. We’re looking to get a day in court. We’re looking to get a name made public," she said.

Michael Eames who was abused by Rev. Donald W. Becker in 1975 in Java Center, looks on during a press conference to discuss the passage of the Child Victims Act in the New York State Legislature in a conference room at Hogan Willig Attorneys At Law in Amherst, Monday, Jan. 28, 2019. (Derek Gee/Buffalo News)

Michael Eames, of Hamburg, said he was looking forward to his day in court to force the Buffalo Diocese to reveal what it knew about the Rev. Donald W. Becker, the priest he and several other men have accused of sexually abusing them when they were children.

Eames alleged Becker molested him at a cabin in Java Center in 1975. Becker was associate pastor of SS. Peter & Paul Church in Hamburg at the time.

“They had to know. They just had to know. When they moved him, they knew there was a problem at St. Pete’s in Hamburg and they just moved him to a new area," said Eames. "And I knew people that were abused by Father Becker in the new area that he was moved to. So this is just a trail of destruction he’s left in his path."

Eames said he applied to the diocese's Independent Reconciliation Compensation Program but received an offer that "was not good, not good at all." The program gives abuse victims a monetary settlement if they give up their rights to sue the diocese. The Buffalo Diocese already has offered more than $8.2 million to 50 victims, The News has learned through interviews with victims and lawyers.

Buffalo Diocese offers more than $8 million to abuse victims

Eames said he didn't anticipate state lawmakers ever passing a law that would allow him to seek justice.

“I was totally amazed that this has turned around, and it’s still hard to believe,” said Eames.

Niagara Falls attorney Paul K. Barr also said he was rejecting a $45,000 offer from the diocese so that he can take his case to court.

Barr alleged he was sexually abused by the Rev. Michael R. Freeman in 1980 in the rectory of Sacred Heart Church in Niagara Falls.

"I want to go through the discovery process. I want to be able to confront the representatives of the diocese," said Barr. "I'm willing to forgo the money they offered so I can look somebody in the eye who represents the diocese."

Barr said all survivors of abuse will finally have the opportunity for a full accounting of what the diocese did or didn't do.

"It's a matter of vindication in the sense that everyone will know that I reported Mike Freeman and they didn't do anything to protect the other kids Mike Freeman abused. I was ignored," he said.

Victims were not the only ones watching the proceedings Monday.

“It’s a long time coming," said Erie County District Attorney John J. Flynn.

The county’s chief prosecutor noted how he’s had to tell abuse victims there is little his office can do, via criminal courts, about abuse that occurred decades ago.

“At least having five more years on the statute of limitations gives victims five more years to come forward. It’s an additional tool in my toolbox and hopefully we can provide justice to someone going forward," Flynn said.

Lawmakers and advocates for childhood sexual abuse victims gather at the New York State Capitol in Albany on Monday, Jan. 28, 2019. (Tom Precious/Buffalo News)

The final bill enacted Monday made clearer that the look-back period of one year for victims of any age to bring civil action affects both private and public institutions. The Catholic Church raised concerns that just private groups – like churches and Boy Scouts – would be covered by the one-year look-back lawsuit period. Lawmakers changed the bill’s language last week to provide that certainty.

“No one can say this legislation unfairly targets one group over the other," said Sen. Brad Hoylman, a Manhattan Democrat who sponsored the Child Victims Act in the Senate.

“We know that child sexual abuse happens, sadly, in every venue, whether it’s a yeshiva or someone’s home, whether it’s the gym teacher or the Boy Scouts, whether it’s your church or your youth group. It does not discriminate against its survivors," Hoylman said.

While Senate Republicans killed the bill in past years, GOP lawmakers Monday said the new measure does not go far enough. The Senate GOP offered amendments – rejected along party lines – to boost the criminal statute of limitations higher than 28 years old and to let many victims tap into a special fund.

Sen. Catharine Young, an Olean Republican, said the bill is of no help to what she called the vast majority of victims, abused by family members, neighbors or baby sitters, for instance, and whose abusers don’t have deep financial pockets and there can be no suits brought against an institution. She said an asset forfeiture fund run by the Manhattan district attorney – flush with at least $700 million – could be tapped to pay victims who can’t sue an institution.

“People should stand up for all victims and that’s not happening today," Young said.

Republicans also criticized that the bill does not force members of the clergy to report to authorities instances in which they believe there is abuse occurring by fellow priests. Such a reporting requirement exists for schools.

Hoylman called it “rich” that Republicans were critical of the bill as not being strong enough, after years of killing it.

“What took you so long?" Hoylman said on the floor to Republicans – all of whom voted for the final bill – after the debate ended.

Cuomo's harsh words for Catholic Church

In a news conference at the Capitol, Cuomo had two chief targets for his criticism of why the Child Victims Act took so long to get passed: Senate Republicans who controlled the Senate until their majority party defeat in the November elections and the state’s Catholic Church leaders.

“I don’t think I’m against the Catholic Church. I’m with the pope. I think the bishops may have a different position than the pope," Cuomo, a Catholic, said of Pope Francis, whose comments on child sexual abuse by priests have grown increasingly strong since 2013.

“It’s not a pleasant position to have the Catholic Church criticize you but Pope Francis gives me comfort on this issue. The abuse of minors is so brutal the church cannot remain indifferent to this," the governor added, saying that the church “would like us to legislate their opinion” on social and other matters. “I don’t think denial by the Catholic Church is going to work here," Cuomo said of church-related cases.

The New York State Catholic Conference, the policy arm of the bishops in the state, pushed back against Cuomo.

“It’s truly unfortunate that Governor Cuomo continues to portray the societal issue of child sexual abuse as a Catholic-only problem," said Dennis Poust, a spokesman for bishops across the state. “Thankfully, the Legislature and victim advocates understand this is not the case."

He said the church did not oppose the bill’s final version because it states the special litigation period applies to cases brought against all institutions, which could be entities owned by the state or localities.

“We hope this legislation gives all survivors the opportunity to be heard and compensated, wherever they were abused," Poust said.

Whalen said he was surprised the Buffalo clergy sex abuse scandal erupted after he held his news conference in February.

"I had no idea that it would explode to this magnitude," he said.

The Child Victims Act will help past victims and prevent future abuse, Whalen said.

"I'm glad that they'll have that opportunity to confront their abuser," he said. "It takes a while for some survivors to come out and admit what happened. They've got some time now."

Whalen said he plans to take advantage of the new law by filing a lawsuit against the diocese.

"Most definitely," he said.

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