Survivors of childhood sexual abuse are facing another legal obstacle this year as the state court system has essentially suspended most civil filings amid the coronavirus outbreak.
The Chief Administrative Judge of the Courts, Lawerence Marks, suspended paper and electronic filing for “non-essential” cases as of Monday, March 23. Legal matters currently considered essential for New York courts include certain criminal matters, family court, Supreme Court cases particularly related to COVID-19, and housing matters.
With the number of COVID-19 cases in New York reaching 25,665 as of Tuesday, March 24, this decision is aimed at limiting interaction, and the spread of the virus, in the workplace.
But the move is also likely to have an effect on those seeking justice under the Child Victims Act. The court closures come about halfway through a special one-year “lookback window” that permits sexual abuse survivors to file civil legal actions against their abusers and their employers, regardless of when the abuse took place.
It is unclear whether that lookback window, which was a major component of the larger Child Victims Act, will be extended once the courts resume normal operations. But the primary sponsors of the CVA — Sen. Brad Hoylman, D- Manhattan, and Assemblywoman Linda Rosenthal, D-Manhattan — are now pushing to extend the revival window another 12 months.
“When we finally passed the Child Victims Act, we attempted to guarantee a full 12-month period for survivors to file suit,” Hoylman said. “Now, the massive unexpected interruption to our judicial system makes the need for extending the CVA more urgent than ever.”
The extended look-back window in bill S.7082/A.9036, would give victims until August 14, 2021 to file lawsuits against abusers and organizations where the abuse took place, to allow individuals more time to deal with the emotional, financial, and now legal challenges as courts cannot currently take their cases.
The CVA also extends the period of time to press legal action for adult abuse survivors to 55-years-old for civil lawsuits, 25-years-old for criminal misdemeanor charges, and 28-years-old for criminal charges against their abuser.
Previously New York state laws on sexual child abuse prohibited individuals from filing criminal charges after age 23. It now joins 27 other states in introducing statute of limitation law reform for child sex abuse, according to research from non-profit child abuse prevention group Child USA.
“It’s always been prudent to extend the CVA’s revival window by another year, matching similar policies in progressive states like California, New Jersey and Hawaii,” said Hoylman.
Since the CVA look-back window opened last August, Hoylman reports that more than 1,547 civil lawsuits, as of February, have been filed against abusers and the institutions where the abuse took place.
The suspension of court filings for the CVA adds to the challenges that some abuse survivors were already facing.
The Boy Scouts of America filed for chapter 11 bankruptcy last month, to lessen their financial burden of incoming lawsuits as decades of abuse are being reported with the age-less look-back window.
Hoylman — a former Eagle Scout himself— is concerned that bankruptcy was a way for the Boy Scouts to limit how much they will be required to pay abuse victims.
“I’m appalled to see an organization that taught me about civic responsibility use Chapter 11 bankruptcy to limit adult survivors of child sexual abuse from seeking justice and to shield the institution from financial accountability,” Hoylman said.
The first BSA programs started in 1910 and since then 130 million children have participated in their programs.
Jim Turley, National Chair of BSA released an open letter to abuse victims on Monday, February 17, explaining the bankruptcy and announcing a five-year partnership with male abuse victims group 1in6.
1in6 will provide resources through the Boy Scouts for a 24-hour hotline, support groups, and anonymous counseling.
“The national organization of the Boy Scouts of America has initiated a voluntary financial restructuring to ensure we can equitably compensate all victims of past abuse in our programs, through a proposed Victim’s Compensation Trust,” said Turley.
Since the bankruptcy the organization has announced a restructuring program, in which Scouting programs will continue as normal, as no local councils will be filing for or impacted by the bankruptcy. It is not known how much money will make up the Victim’s Compensation Trust.
Local councils are the 272 administrative boards covering certain troops in a geographic region. This distinction will separate the funds that lie at a national and local level, which could have negative implications for providing for the BSA run Victim Compensation Trust.
Many large institutions file Chapter 11 bankruptcies to protect themselves financially amid an influx of legal charges. USA Gymnastics voluntarily filed during the more than 200 sexual assault allegations against national team Doctor Larry Nassar in 2018.
“For nearly a century the Boy Scouts of America apparently knowingly harbored and protected individuals who preyed upon, and abused the children whose well-being they were charged to protect,” Hoylman said.
In New York, the Roman Catholic Diocese of Rochester too filed for bankruptcy on September 12, 2019 after a month of lawsuits filed from the start of the CVA look-back window.
In a letter to the 86 parishes across 12 counties, the Bishop of Rochester, Salvatore R. Matano, said that all litigation against the dioceses is prior to 2006.
Years of both documented and hidden abuse charges are well surfaced in the Catholic Church. According to the annual report by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, there were 1,455 total abuse allegations in 2018 with some charges dating back to the 1940s. The report credits an increase in allegations to victims taking advantage of the Independent Reconciliation and Compensation Program (IRCP), implemented in New York by the Catholic Church to provide independent compensation and support to victims.
In an op-ed published in the Daily News by New York Cardinal Timothy Dolan, he urged reform to the CVA in 2018 prior to its passing, expressing utilizing the IRCP instead of lawsuits.
“It surpasses endless and costly litigation — which can further hurt the victim-survivors,” said Cardinal Dolan in his op-ed, “ And prevents the real possibility of bankrupting both public and private organizations, including churches, that provide essential services in education, charity and health care.”