Will NY finally let childhood victims seek justice after age 23?

The New York Interfaith Community comes together in solidarity following a week of violent hate crimes.
The New York Interfaith Community comes together in solidarity following a week of violent hate crimes.
Kevin P. Coughlin/Office of Governor Andrew M. Cuomo
The New York Interfaith Community comes together in solidarity following a week of violent hate crimes.

Will NY finally let childhood victims seek justice after age 23?

As lawmakers renew push for Child Victims Act, Cuomo warns of bankrupting the Catholic Church.
December 5, 2018

In the political war over the Child Victims Act, state Sen. Brad Hoylman is calling on his opponents to surrender. “Here’s a challenge I would like to make to those organizations like the Boy Scouts and the New York (Archdiocese): Lay down your swords,” the Manhattan Democrat told City & State. “Don’t lobby against this bill.”

Hoylman is the lead sponsor of the bill that would lift the statute of limitations on young sexual assault victims seeking to sue their alleged predators beyond the current age limit of 23. And since a version of the bill was introduced more than a decade ago, the Boy Scouts of America and the Catholic Archdiocese have been two of its main opponents. Opponents fear the law would financially devastate the institutions, both of which have histories of adult leaders assaulting youths in their care.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo is sympathetic to those concerns, telling reporters in November that “nobody wants to see a diocese or the Catholic Church bankrupt, so how (the bill) is done is very important.” Nonetheless, Cuomo has been vocally supportive of the bill in recent years, and listed it among his top priorities for the 2019 legislative session – even though his backing hasn’t been enough to make it law. Although the Assembly approved the bill in 2018 with vast bipartisan support, the state Senate’s Republican majority never brought it up for a vote.

I thought, last year, the #MeToo movement would force Republicans to position this as a must-do. And they didn’t. – Assemblywoman Linda Rosenthal

Manhattan Assemblywoman Linda Rosenthal, the lead sponsor of the bill in the Assembly, claims she was genuinely surprised by the Senate Republicans’ hesitation. The Democratic lawmaker said she thought “the #MeToo movement and the outrage of constituents about the way women have been treated,” combined with the 90 percent public approval for the bill according to a 2018 Quinnipiac University poll, “would force Republicans to strategically position this as a must-do. And they didn’t.”

That’s in part because of powerful opposition from the insurance industry, which would stand to lose money from a rash of payouts, and from Agudath Israel, a Jewish interest group, as well the Catholic Church and the Boy Scouts.

Like Hoylman, Rosenthal called on opponents to reconsider, noting that 30 percent of children sexually abused are victims of family members. “You want to cover your people, that’s one thing,” she said of the bill’s opponents. “But their efforts have ramifications for everyone who’s been the victim of abuse. That’s a double whammy. It’s self-interest to the highest degree.”

With Democrats taking the state Senate majority, the terms of the battle have shifted. Incoming state Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins is a co-sponsor of the Child Victims Act, meaning that a bill is almost guaranteed to be sent to Cuomo’s desk. Now advocates and opponents will be debating the bill’s language, like whether to include a one-year “lookback window” so that past victims could bring lawsuits even if they’re older than 23. Cuomo voicing concern about the bill’s financial impact on the church was rebuked by victims of sexual abuse and the Daily News editorial board. Hoylman also questioned the governor. “The facts are that the one-year lookback window does not result in bankruptcies for our treasured and highly valued institutions,” he said. “All you have to do is look at other states that have instituted lookback windows like California and see the results.”

Because of the heavy subject matter and the organized opposition, the bill isn’t likely to pass immediately after session opens. Hoylman said he would like to see it “sooner rather than later,” and state Senate Democratic Conference Chair Michael Gianaris confirmed the bill has widespread support in the chamber. But the usual timeline of laws being crammed into the state budget and then again in the “Big Ugly” at the end of session may be upended with Democrats having full control of state government.

Whenever the bill starts to move, Rosenthal said she wants to make sure sexual abuse survivors are included in conversations. “It has to be palatable to them,” she said. “They’re the ones we’re fighting for. The perpetrators should not be writing this bill.”

Jeff Coltin
is a senior reporter at City & State. He covers New York City Hall.