The argument against passing the Child Victims Act was that it risked bankrupting Catholic dioceses by opening the floodgates for lawsuits against the church. But victims of childhood sexual abuse who were in Albany on Monday to watch the bill win legislative approval were focused not on dollars but on finally having the chance to be recognized.
The bill enacted Monday will help more of the victims to have their day in court, to explain the traumatic events that brought them there and force the church to explain how and why it mishandled or covered up so many of their cases.
The legislation, which Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo will sign into law, is a welcome use of state power to give a voice to powerless people whose innocence as children was stolen from them by predatory pedophiles.
To be sure, the problem of child sex abuse goes far beyond the clergy. That is why the bill’s authors made clear that the one-year look-back period, in which victims of any any age can bring lawsuits, affects both private and public institutions.
The Child Victims Act also extends the statute of limitations for criminal prosecution of child molesters, from age 23 to 28, and raises the permissible age for civil lawsuits to 55.
Michael F. Whalen Jr. is one of the abuse victims who was in the Senate gallery on Monday. Whalen held a news conference last February in which he disclosed he had been abused as a teenager by the Rev. Norbert F. Orsolits. Orsolits that day admitted to The Buffalo News that he had molested “probably dozens of boys.”
Another child abuse survivor at the Capitol was Melanie Blow, who grew up in Wyoming County and said she was raped by a man while a teenager. The statute of limitations kept her case from being prosecuted.
“Most of us are not looking to get money from this,” Blow said. “We’re looking to get a day in court. We’re looking to get a name made public.”
Catholic bishops in New York had lobbied for more than 12 years to keep the Child Victims Act from becoming law, with help from the Republican-controlled Senate. The bill’s fate changed when control of the Senate flipped to Democrats in November and the Catholic Conference this month dropped its opposition.
The new law will cost Cuomo some Catholic support, as did the passage last week of a bill expanding abortion rights.
New York Cardinal Timothy Dolan wrote an opinion piece in the New York Post this week asking why the governor seems to pick on the church. The governor was unfazed.
“I understand the Catholic Church would like us to legislate their opinion, but you don’t have Catholic leaders or Jewish leaders or Muslim leaders,” Cuomo said Monday. “You just have legal leaders who are to follow the law.”
Church leaders have justifiable worries about the financial ramifications of the Child Victims Act, but if comforting the afflicted is part of their mission, this law helps accomplish that.