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What New York State’s Child Victims Act Says About the Changing

Narrative of Abuse

by Cameron Decker | Spring 2019

This article explores the legal, social, and governmental ramifications of the New York State Child Victims Act. The Act was passed in February of 2019 and extends the statute of limitations for bringing suits regarding sexual exploitation of minors, creating a one-year grace period for previously excluded cases, and dismissing the need for a Notice of Claim. New York State’s quickly changing legislation is the result of shifting political moods within the state, as well as growing public support for victims of abuse-- young and old-- in the face of a scandal involving child abuse within the Catholic Church.

2.  “Governor Cuomo Signs the Child Victims Act.” in 2019 Justice Agenda. New York State official website. Februray 14, 2019.

The long-rumored and covered-up history of sexual abuse of children in the Catholic Church smashed its way into headlines this past year, as it was revealed that a group of priests had been abusing churchgoing children and circulating lewd images of them for years. The scandal badly hurt the image of the Catholic Church and has embroiled many high-ranking Church officials. Perhaps the only silver lining in this painful narrative is the momentum it gave to New York State’s Child Victims Act, which was signed into law on February 14, 2019. The bill, which had been languishing in the State Senate for years under Republican leadership, was unanimously passed in the Senate in January after the Catholic Church gave up its long-held opposition. The law is somewhat unique in the US and represents a huge shift in New York’s legal response specifically to predation on minors. Previously, New York State law required that any criminal or civil charge of abuse of a minor be brought before the victim’s twenty-third birthday. 

 

The law has been held back not just by opposition from the Catholic Church; insurance companies, schools, and Jewish religious communities have all raised concerns about the impact such a law could have on their institutions, both reputationally and monetarily. For New Yorkers, the passing of the Act makes two bold points. First, victims of child abuse will no longer be silenced by the government working in conjunction with the institutions which have victimized them. Second, and relatedly, the Act shows that the legal machine in New York has reached a level of power and control to pursue justice against the will of powerful interest groups. The Church’s opposition finally relented when the Act was expanded to encompass charges against both public and private institutions, ensuring that the Church would not be unfairly targeted in forthcoming lawsuits. The expansion of the law by a former opponent speaks powerfully to our societal recognition of the need for compassionate, long-standing legislation which protects the abused[1] rather than the abusers. Governor Cuomo himself noted that the Church, and in particular powerful bishops whose organization has been rocked by the recent child abuse scandal, made passage of the bill difficult.[2] Even if the Church was simply making an attempt to support a bill it knew was going to pass despite its best efforts, as many have speculated, the fact that the institution could no longer dig in its heels proves that as our cultural narrative has changed to treat the stories of abuse victims with more respect and belief, the law has followed suit. In changing this law, New York (known as a bastion of East Coast liberalism) has created one of the most extreme, widely-encompassing victims right acts in the nation.

 

The four parts of the law include a five-year extension to bringing criminal charges, as well as a one-year ‘look back’ period in which those whose lawsuits would have been ineligible under the previous law can restart the legislative process. The other two parts are an extension of the civil statute of limitations for any claims related to or stemming from sexual abuse of minors, and--finally-- the dismissal of the need for a Notice of Claim. Notice of Claim is a particularly stringent piece of law, requiring a claim to be filed within 90 days of an incident if one means to bring a suit against a government entity. These various hoops, combined with social stigma and the power of the organizations which victims potentially have to deal with, have caused only a small percentage of cases to be reported. Factoring in the young— sometimes extremely young— age of the litigants, the cases may never come to light. Or, if they come to light many years after the fact, the actual waiting period becomes cause for doubting the litigant’s claim. While the State has taken steps to recognize that this stigma is unwarranted by extending the statute of limitations in the first place, it is currently unknowable whether that social stigma will be impacted by the legislation.

 

The Child Victims Act has ramifications for not just the legal system, but social services organizations, religious organizations, and the political climate. The Act was shepherded by State Senator Brad Hoylman (D-Manhattan), a member of the newly-Democratic State Senate majority, and Assemblywoman Linda Rosenthal (D-Manhattan)[3]. Perhaps the most striking piece of the Act— and the most obvious admission of complicity on the part of New York’s legal system— has been the recognition of governmental and legal failures across the board regarding these types of cases. As lawmakers have come out in support of the bill— with some even revealing themselves as victims of sexual abuse— it has become obvious that this Act is not just an important landmark for New York’s view of cases, which involve minors and longstanding, entrenched private organizations. It is a source of catharsis, and a necessary step toward making sure that those whose stories have gone unheard, are finally able to speak. New York State has, in essence, legitimized the claims of older people— ranging from their twenties to middle-aged— who have dealt with the trauma of situations which children often cannot make sense of, and which are emotionally difficult for their entire lives. The law makes an important statement about the State’s separation from and lack of reliance on the support of powerful political players like religious organizations. And it will hopefully resonate throughout government services; for example, social services, which for some children are the first line of defense against this kind of harm. New York is not the first state to liberalize laws allowing for victims to bring civil and criminal lawsuits against their abusers; some states have no statute of limitations at all. But for a state to change its thinking and laws so quickly, after seeing the same piece of legislation lay dormant for years, shows the strength which shifting public opinion can exercise on the law.

REFERENCES

 

[1] Wang, Vivian. “They Were Sexually Abused Long Ago as Children. Now They Can Sue in N.Y.” New York Times, January 28, 2019.

[2] “Governor Cuomo Signs the Child Victims Act.” in 2019 Justice Agenda. New York State official website. Februray 14, 2019.

[3] Napoli, Marie. “Child Victims Act is a Step Toward Healing.” New York Law Journal. March 7, 2019.

1.  Wang, Vivian. “They Were Sexually Abused Long Ago as Children. Now They Can Sue in N.Y.” New York Times, January 28, 2019.

3.  Napoli, Marie. “Child Victims Act is a Step Toward Healing.” New York Law Journal. March 7, 2019.