In February 2019, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo signed Child Victims Act into law. It extends the statute of limitations for victims of child abuse. Child sex abuse victims are now allowed to file criminal charges against their abuser before they turn 28. Victims are allowed to file civil charges against their abuser before they turn 55. Previously, victims had to file both civil and criminal charges before they turned 23. The law also allows a one-year period for individuals to file cases that happened longer than what the statute of limitations would have allowed. It also requires judges to have some training on how to handle child sex abuse cases.
What are statutes of limitations, and why do we have them?
Statutes of limitations (SOL) are a predetermined period that the state is allowed to charge someone with a crime. Different crimes have different extended periods of time when one can file charges against someone. However, the same crime may have a different SOL depending on the state. There are SOL laws because of concerns that witness testimony might be unreliable. A victim may not necessarily remember enough about their abuse that the jury may not find them credible. Physical evidence may also deteriorate over time, which further questions credibility.
Why extend the statute of limitations if someone might not remember what happened to them?
DNA, audio or video recordings, emails, and texts do not disintegrate over time, making them more credible forms of evidence over a longer period. Society has also improved their understanding of the trauma that victims of child sexual abuse experience. People now understand that it can take many years or even decades before someone finally comes forward. While laws on statutes of limitations are put in place to ensure credibility, there are exceptional cases such as child sexual abuse which necessitates lengthened the statute of limitations.
Catholic Church of Pennsylvania cover-up
In August 2018, a grand jury report mentioned that over 90 Pittsburgh-area Catholic priests have been accused of sexual abuse. The report also noted that the Catholic Church of Pennsylvania covered up allegations involving about 1,000 victims who were mostly children. Some of these allegations stretch back 70 years. This cover-up of child sexual abuse by the Catholic Church in Pennsylvania highlights why it is necessary to extend the statutes of limitations for child sexual abuse. Child sexual abuse among clergy has been going on for many decades. This shows that the Catholic Church in Pennsylvania has failed to stop to these abuses if they have continued for this long.
Jesuit Priest list
The Northeastern US Province of the Society of Jesus provided a list of about 50 Jesuit priests who have been accused of sexual assault on children. Many of these priests were assigned in parishes and schools throughout New York and New England. However, some of them have also been assigned to parishes and schools in other states and countries. The lists include priests who have had allegations stretching from the 1950s onward. This revelation from the Jesuits further necessitates the extension of the statute of limitation laws. Reported abuse committed by Jesuit priests has gone back almost 70 years, meaning that the Society of Jesus was ineffective in addressing these abuses.
I love Jesuits. It is all awful, but for someone who admires Jesuits the way I do, it is an extra dose of depressing.
Opposition to the Child Victims Act
The Catholic Conference, which comprises New York State’s Catholic bishops, opposed the Child Victims Act and spent over a million dollars lobbying legislators in an attempt to prevent it from passing. As a Catholic, this is embarrassing.
They were especially opposed to the provision that allowed a one-year window in which victims whose claims date back beyond the statute of limitations would be considered. They argued that this provision would force institutions like them to defend misconduct they did not know about. The Catholic Conference also expressed concern that only private institutions such as themselves would be affected by the one-year period and not public ones.
In an op-ed, Cardinal Timothy Dolan of the Archdiocese of New York called for a Child Victims Act that emphasizes “healing” and not the breaking of religious institutions. Cardinal Dolan pointed to a compensation program run by his Archdiocese as a model that the state could use. This program provides monetary compensation to victims of clergy sexual abuse. It has already paid over 1,000 victims. While he does not directly mention his opposition to the extension of SOL laws in the op-ed, Cardinal Dolan has previously stated that the one-year period would be “toxic” for them.
I’m not going to crush Cardinal Dolan. But he is just wrong, and the Church looks awful taking this position. The Church also needs to realize that it cannot deal with clergy sexual abuse internally. I think they mean well, but the result is shielding members of the clergy who have committed such abuses from facing potential legal action. Abusers, no matter their affiliation, must face legal consequences for their actions.