Church supports alternative to Child Victims Act

As lawmakers prepare for the closing weeks of session, victims of childhood sexual abuse are pushing once again for a controversial bill that would give them a chance to seek justice for decades-old cases.

The Child Victims Act (S.809) would allow victims to file legal action against their abusers, regardless of when the crime took place.

But opponents of The Child Victims Act — mainly churches and other organizations that may be held responsible for decades-old cases of abuse — say passage of the bill could bankrupt them if it is adopted as written.

The New York State Catholic Conference, which represents the bishops of New York state in matters of public policy, supports another bill (S.5660/A.7302) that would eliminate the criminal statute of limitations for the prosecution of certain sex offenses and extend the time for civil claims to be brought by survivors of child sexual abuse until they are 28 years old.

It also expands mandated reporter requirements by adding clergy to the list of those who must report suspected cases of sexual abuse of a child, and requires all mandated reporters to not only report suspected familial abuse, but also suspected abuse at the hands of other mandated reporters.

The church-supported bill — which is sponsored by Andrew Lanza, R-Staten Island, and Michael Cusick, D-Staten Island — further requires that all organizations, public or private, conduct criminal history searches on any employee or volunteer with the organization who has unsupervised contact with children. Costs to not-for-profit organizations associated with such criminal history checks would be reimbursed by the state under this legislation.

What it would not do is open a one-year window for anyone to file a lawsuit against their abusers, regardless of when the crime allegedly took place. This one-year window for filing a legal claim has been the main sticking point preventing passage of the Child Victims Act for many years.

Supporters of the Child Victims Act say the Hoylman bill is the only way victims can truly find closure on the abuse they suffered years ago. But opponents say the bill is “seriously flawed” because it would force institutions to defend misconduct from decades ago, for which they have no knowledge and played no role, involving employees long retired, dead or infirm, based on information long lost, if it ever existed.

In an interview with The Legislative Gazette, Dennis Poust, director of communications for the New York State Catholic Conference, said, “People today cannot be held responsible for the atrocities committed by people of the past.”

Poust notes that the church’s current leadership, as well as the donors who help keep the church running through their contributions and charity, played no part in the abuses from decades ago.

The Catholic Conference strongly supports protecting childhood victims moving forward, but strongly opposes paying settlements for cases that occurred decades ago.

“The statute of limitations exists to protect justice,” said Poust. “It’s costly to defend each case.”

The Archdiocese of New York has created a compensation program for abuse victims, even mortgaging prized property in Manhattan to raise $100 million to pay for the settlements.

The Catholic Church of New York has already proposed settlement offers more than 60 people, and at least 44 have been accepted, according to the New York Post. Those who accept compensation from the church waive their right for future legal action.

Hoylman referred to the compensation fund as a “canny legal strategy” late last year. The Manhattan Democrat says he has no plans to change his bill to eliminate the controversial one-year window to revive old claims.