Breaking the statute of limitations is not justice

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New York Archbishop Cardinal Timothy Dolan.

Breaking the statute of limitations is not justice

Breaking the statute of limitations is not justice
June 13, 2016

In a recent Slant editorial, Melanie Blow of the Stop Abuse Campaign advocated ending New York’s criminal and civil statute of limitations for child sexual abuse, as proposed legislatively by Assemblywoman Margaret Markey.

Breaking the statute of limitations, even for just six months, would set a dangerous precedent for the rest of our legal system. Despite our collective horror at reports about sexual predators, we must not succumb to vigilante justice damning the rule of law.

The proposed window would allow plaintiffs to sue no matter how long ago the alleged abuse may have occurred. Even claims that are 50 or 60 years old would be allowed if this law passed. Furthermore, there is no requirement that the institution had actual knowledge of the abuse, leaving institutional defendants with little to no defense.

Other states that have dismantled this cornerstone of law in the way that Markey suggests provide a case study in how unjust eliminating the statute of limitations can be. When California opened a one-year window for this type of litigation, 336 of the more than 800 claims filed were against people who had passed away.

The California example shows not only the difficulty in finding evidence and witnesses after decades have passed, but also illustrates that the target of these retroactive claims is not always the alleged abuser, but the institutions in which they served. Our schools and churches will be targeted in these cases, not the perpetrators, and under the proposed law, the institutions would not need to have any knowledge of the alleged abuse to be held liable.

Statutes of limitations have been a fundamental aspect of the Western world’s legal tradition since its beginnings, and for good reason: memories fade, evidence is lost, and people – both witnesses and the accused – die off. If a case is 50 years old, the defense may be without any living witnesses. Left with only the emotional testimony of a plaintiff, judges may rule based on that singular piece of evidence. Without the testimony of living witnesses, and without the requirement that an institution had actual knowledge of the abuse, these institutions will be forced to settle hundreds of claims. Some will have to declare bankruptcy, as the Catholic dioceses in California, Minnesota, and Delaware did.

Despite the rhetoric, these allegations will not be limited to the Catholic Church and religious institutions. As Blow referenced in her editorial, the clergy commits only 2 to 3 percent of abuse. Once the floodgates of litigation are opened, public schools, daycare centers and other nonprofit entities will also become targets, jeopardizing the services these establishments provide to our communities.

This proposed measure, while erroneously putting our educational and charitable institutions at risk, would also do nothing to prevent future crimes. Those who are sick enough to perpetrate these heinous acts will not be deterred by a retroactive repeal of the statute of limitations.

Rather than throwing out thousands of years of jurisprudence, New York must harness our resources and focus on prevention. As a civilized society we need to support programs that put a stop to these horrific acts. Experts suggest that comprehensive offender management and early childhood education are effective in preventing these crimes from ever occurring or reoccurring.

While I share the desire to give victims more time to seek justice, the time to bring a civil suit cannot be infinite. Statutes of limitations exist for the reasons outlined above and have since the dawn of democracy. This is why I support legislation proposed by Assemblyman Michael Cusick, which would give victims until age 28 to sue, an extension of five years. This change will give victims more time to bring legal action without jeopardizing a foundational principle of justice.

We are all repulsed by sexual abuse, but we cannot let our disgust allow us to throw out the statute of limitations entirely. We cannot let mob rule supplant the rule of law. If we do, our system of justice will be weakened, our educational and community institutions will suffer, and we will have done nothing to end the abuse.

Thomas Stebbins is the executive director of the Lawsuit Reform Alliance of New York.

Thomas Stebbins
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